Thursday, 13 October 2011

Potential AA target: Paul Maholm

Word broke yesterday that the Pittsburgh Pirates don't intend on paying Paul Maholm $9.75MM next season.  Immediately, people began reading between the lines, claiming that such a report meant that Pittsburgh would buyout the option for $750K.  Neil Huntington, Pirates' GM, claimed that they weren't intending on rejecting the option, however, saying that they would either trade him before the season starts, or during the season.  Obviously, this could just be posturing, since everyone wants starting pitching, and he might try and build some kind of market for a team like the Yankees, but if he doesn't find an offer he likes, he's got a reasonably effective pitcher at a price that might not be great, but certainly isn't bad.

This option projects to be close to a wash.  Maholm was worth ~2.1 WAR last season, so on the free agent market, the $9.75MM is right around what is standard, if we equate 1 WAR to $4.5-4.75MM, and project Maholm to be approximately as effective next season. Part of a GM's job, however, is to get as many wins out of his team without spending a cock-load of money, and at $9.75MM, Maholm projects to be worth right around what he will be paid, and thus, isn't scheduled to provide much of a surplus. (Sidenote-- Maholm wasn't a free agent signing; he avoided arbitration, and was worth ~5 fWAR over the last two years, in which he was paid $6.5MM, which pretty much means that Pittsburgh got some value out of him, though not tons.  Considering his back to back 2WAR seasons, 9.75MM doesn't provide much surplus, but there is some.  If the cost per WAR rises, which it usually does, we could reasonably expect $5MM of surplus value with a 2.1WAR season.)

Something I don't understand is the timing of this announcement.  Given Charlie Morton's recent injury and surgery, and the revelation that he will be out of action for 6 months, I'm wondering why the hell they would decide to make this claim now regarding Maholm.  He's been fairly average for a starter over his career, despite being fairly inconsistent, even if we consider the fact that he's been playing in the NL Central his whole career.  Having said that, he plays for the Pirates, so he hasn't gotten to face the shitty Pirates lineups of the last 6 years, which negates some of the advantage of pitching in the NL Central.  He's had FIP's right around the 4.00 mark each season in his career, which isn't great, and he had 3 straight seasons of descending K-rates, combined with ascending BB-rates, before sort of fixing that this season.  He's also suppressed HR's very well in each of the last 3 years (partly due to playing in pitcher friendly Pittsburgh).

So why am I writing this?  Well, we know that if the Jays choose to add a pitcher, it will be a front-mid of the rotation type of guy, which isn't exactly a description that Maholm represents, but there is an inherent value in his ability to pitch 200+ innings (2 WAR over 200IP > 2 WAR over 170 IP due to bullpen wear and tear).  I'm wondering if the Jays will look in to a guy like Maholm, who was on pace for a career high in innings pitched until missing the last 6 weeks of the season with an elbow issue.  As far as I can tell, however, this is the only time he's missed over the last 3 years.

Maholm's $9.75MM pricetag seems a little high for Alex Anthopoulos, and he's certainly not the first guy I'd think of paying $10MM to.  However, I feel like one of the main reasons the Jays would elect to go after a mid-rotation guy is the ability to throw innings and go deeper in to games so as to alleviate the use of the bullpen, in contrast to this past season.  Maholm can definitely throw somewhere in the 200+ inning range, which would obviously be a help to the bullpen, especially if younger guys like Joel Carreno and Luis Perez will be there.  I'm not sure if AA is interested or not, nor am I overly confident about the cost of 1 year of Maholm on the trade market.

The Pirates have 5 days after the end of the World Series to decide whether or not they would like to exercise Maholm's contract option, which leaves an awful lot of scenarios.

  • Exercise Maholm's option, and move him at the trade deadline to a contending team, assuming PIT is out of  the playoff race by then.  The return will be smaller, but there will be fewer question marks in the starting rotation, and it allows Pittsburgh to determine what they have with their young starters who might not necessarily begin the year in the majors (Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie, Gerritt Cole).
  • Exercise Maholm's option, and move him before the start of the season.  They do have guys that can start, and don't necessarily need Maholm in that rotation, especially if they don't think they're ready to contend.  I honestly don't think they're too far away, and they started well enough this season to fool me, but I'm not sure they're quite good enough to get the job done in the NL Central, especially if the Astros are moving to the AL, making that division tougher.  Having said that, barring any trades or free agent signings, Maholm would probably be the best pitcher in the Pirates rotation (unless one of the aforementioned draft picks make the team and is awesome, which is very possible).
  • Don't do anything with the option, trade the rights to Maholm before the 5 days are up.  Maholm won't be a type-A or type-B free agent in the event of his option being declined.  As such, there won't be a Miguel Olivo situation like last year, where AA essentially bought a draft pick from the Colorado Rockies.  The return would be next to nothing for the Pirates, but they wouldn't have to worry about having the $9.75MM on their books, or the $750K buyout.
  • Decline the option, allow Maholm to become a free agent.  Seems unlikely to me, but they can open up a big chunk of change if they feel comfortable with their pitching going in to the season.  They can then use that money to spend on free agency or sign draft picks, since they choose 8th overall this season.  The farm system is good right now, but a lot of them will be graduating to the bigs sooner or later.
The first two seem a lot more likely than the last two, for what it's worth.

If the Jays want to make a move on Maholm, they might have a competitor or seven, given the lack of starters on the free agent market.  $10MM might be a little pricey to give up anything of use, so if the Pirates want to get anything of reasonable impact in return, they might have to either eat up a contract, or toss in some cash.  They have a lot of young, decent position players, but there are certainly some positions that could be upgraded.  I assume Pedro Alvarez will get multiple second chances to prove that he could get the job done, as will Jose Tabata.  Alex Presley played well enough down the stretch that they probably wouldn't take AB's from Garrett Jones for anybody else's benefit.  Ryan Doumit is good enough at catcher if he can stay healthy, and Andrew Mccutchen and Neil Walker aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

I'm sure the Pirates are looking for major-league ready-ish talent in this trade, and the only real holes I see are at 1B, SS, and maybe C depending on Doumit's health (which could shift him to 1B).  The Jays obviously have a wealth of catching depth, but I can't see them selling anything there for 1 year of Paul Maholm, especially on a contract that doesn't suggest to offer much surplus.  I don't think the Jays extended Yunel Escobar to a team friendly contract this season just so that they could trade him, especially after the season he just had, and especially when Adeiny Hechavarria is still a question mark, especially for, again, a contract that doesn't offer much surplus over 1 season, and I can't imagine they're cool with moving Hech yet either.

That leaves 1B.  Adam Lind might not be as good as we thought he was going to be 2 years ago; he doesn't walk, he strikes out a lot, and not a very good fielder.  The problem is, his trade value is not very high after having a shitty second half of the season, and he has an incredibly team-friendly contract ($5MM in '12 and '13, with 3 club options of 7, 7.5, and $8MM).  I wouldn't be surprised if the Jays trade Lind at some point, especially if they pick up a big name 1B elsewhere, but again, this is for 1 year of Maholm.

How about David Cooper?  He might still turn in to something, but he doesn't really appear to have much of a spot on this team going forward.  He doesn't field very well, and his bat doesn't really play well at 1B, as he hits for little power.  It was his second go-around at AAA last season, and he did put up really good numbers in the PCL, so Pittsburgh might see some kind of value there.

I'm just kind of struggling on determining the value that Cooper has, especially relative to Maholm.  If I were Huntington, and asked for Cooper for Maholm straight up, I don't think we'd have a deal (nor do I think Huntington would make that offer), simply because I think there would be a better offer from another team.  Maholm isn't good, per se, but he's not tradeable-for-David-Cooper bad either.  The fact that AA has such a good farm system means that he could definitely give up some middling prospect that might make it somewhere someday (i.e. Chad Beck/Danny Farquhar or something) in exchange for getting Huntington to give up a bit of cash to help pay for the $10MM contract (you might even need to go quite a bit higher than Beck/Fark).

Basically what I'm trying to say here is that Maholm and Brett Cecil aren't incredibly different from one another, and Cecil is 4 years younger, probably hasn't peaked yet, and is several million dollars cheaper.  Maholm was definitely better this year, but Cecil clearly had a down year, and the fact that Maholm would cost literally 10x what Cecil costs doesn't really make up for the fact that Maholm would upgrade the rotation by 1 WAR, give or take, especially when you consider that we already have Cecil on the team.  Guys like Cecil, Drabek, Alvarez, and Mcgowan will all need somewhere to pitch next season, and if the Jays get Maholm, only to have him stink... well I just think that's a worst case scenario in terms of the development of a promising young pitching staff.

If Cecil (or whomever) stinks and Maholm is still available next season, and the Jays are still kicking around in the division a few months in to the year, then sure, I'm for it.  Paul Beeston said that money is available for this coming season if they decide that it's a good idea.  I'm not fussy about the idea of getting Maholm if it's going to cost anything of substance, unless the Pirates are willing to throw in some cash, or take Mark Teahen.

The fact of the matter is that, in order to compete this season, the Jays are going to need a lot of stuff to go right for them.  Offense needs to improve (Snider/Rasmus, etc.), nobody in the rotation can have years like Cecil/Drabek had, and other teams will probably need to take a step backwards.  I really feel like the margin of error on the Jays being good enough to win this division can begin and end with the rotation not having fuck-ups the way they did this past year.

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