Pittsburgh Pirates: How Do They Solve a Problem Like Paul Maholm?

Tom AuSenior Analyst IIMarch 25, 2011

PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 21:  Paul Maholm #28 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the game on September 21, 2010 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

This is the last full year of the Pirates club's control of Paul Maholm.

True, they have a club option in 2012 for $9.75 million in what would be his first free-agent year. That compares to $5.75 million in 2011 and would be a payment that reflects free-agent, not "controlled" status.

Maholm is arguably the "ace" on what passes for a Pirates pitching staff. But that's only on a team that's perennially starved for good pitchers.

On another team, he might be more like a third starter.

On that basis, Maholm would be (just) worth the $9.75 million in 2012. That would represent a barely above league-average compensation for a barely above league-average starter.

But the Pirates, a low-budget team, "never" pay market price for talent; the $9.75 million would make Maholm the highest-paid player on the team, eating up roughly one-fifth of a normal annual budget.

For that kind of money, the Pirates would expect "lights out," or "true" first-starter performance. Someone that could go against the likes of Roy Halladay or Johan Santana with at least a 50-50 chance of winning (as Zach Duke, in fact, did on his better nights out).

Even for the Pirates, $9.75 million would be a bargain for that level of production.

More likely, Maholm will run true to form and perform at a middle of rotation level: His 2010 FIP, or sabermetric ERA of 4.18 supports this theory better than his actual ERA, which was nearly a whole point higher at 5.10.

That is, he will not be good enough for the money in Pittsburgh, but would offer an acceptable risk-reward profile to other teams.

In this case, he would be traded, probably for prospects.

What's left in the rotation would likely include last year's star, James McDonald, a recovering Ross Ohlendorf and a re-emerging Charlie Morton. Kevin Correia, who figures to be a right-handed "Zach Duke" (although we don't yet know which year's), figures to fill a spot toward the back of the rotation—even though he, like last year's Duke, was named opening day starter.

Candidates for the vacated fifth slot would include Jeff Karstens, Brian Burres and a re-started Brad Lincoln with the other two being long relievers or spot starters.

Trading Maholm and leaving a slot to be filled by the likes of the last three named players would not be pleasant.

But unlike some of their predecessors (e.g.Oliver Perez), they are all legitimate fifth-starter options, which is to say that this is a more acceptable course of action than would otherwise be the case.