Late Monday night, Paul Maholm broke the news via his own Twitter account that he has signed with the Chicago Cubs. This morning, Bruce Levine reported that the deal will pay him $4.25 million for 2012 with a $500,000 buyout of a $6.5 million option for 2013, so the deal will either be 1/4.75 or 2/10.75. This puts his guaranteed money at just slightly less than what the Indians took on to acquire Derek Lowe. If he pitches well and the Cubs pick up the option, he’ll essentially have gotten the same deal as Chris Capuano. The market for this kind of pitcher has been pretty clearly defined.
What can we expect from Maholm? And is he a good fit for the Cubs rotation?
At the end of the 2011, I named Maholm as a Good Risk among the 2012 starting pitcher free agents:
Apparently, the Pittsburgh Pirates may try to shop Paul Maholm in the hopes someone may find his ~$10M club option worthy of throwing a prospect Pitt-town’s way, but if not, he could make an interesting free agent target. Maholm has consistently beat his xFIP for the last three years and could potentially blossom with a strong defense and legitimate team around him.
Well, the Pirates declined Maholm’s option, meaning he is likely to earn less than $10M with the Cubs (assuming the logic holds that if the Pirates would not pay $10M, then the rebuilding Cubs would not either). According to WAR, Maholm has actually been worth a touch over $10M per season over the last four years, but not the last two.
He will be 30 years old in 2012, which — in pitcher years — is like the age of not-young. Given how pitchers age sporadically and mysteriously, Maholm could pitch another 10 years or another 2 — it’s hard to say — but he is not particularly young anymore and he probably is as good now as he ever may be.
For the last three seasons — from 2009 through 2011 — Maholm has sustained about a 7.5% HR/FB ratio (while, somewhat alarmingly, his fastball and changeup velocities have decreased). However, he also sustained about a 12.5% HR/FB ratio from 2006 through 2008. Which do we trust? Well, typically the most recent one (7.5%), which is good news for the Cubs because those higher rates could make him a launch pad in Wrigley’s fickle air currents.
Nonetheless, Cubs fan can and should expect a nice league average FIP from Maholm, who induces a decent amount of ground balls, and can stay relatively healthy. Maholm did miss several starts with shoulder issues in 2011, and his SIERA (4.22) — which has predicted his ERA better than any other stat — suggests his 2011 ERA (3.66) may not be so repeatable in 2012.
With the Matt Garza trade talks continuing to gain momentum, Maholm figures to be a nice stopgap, though certainly a downgrade, in Garza’s potential absence. If nothing else, Maholm delays the returns of such pitchers as Casey Coleman and James Russell to the rotation — pitchers who are simply not ready for MLB starter duties.
Ultimately, Maholm is a decent, average starter (he has a FIP- of exactly 100), quite capable of a 2.0 WAR season, and he is cheap. Also, the Cubs are still in rebuilding mode. As GM Jed Hoyer said before the trade was official:
“We’re not finished acquiring starting pitchers,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday. “We want to have as much depth as possible. At this point, we’re still very much in the process of gathering as many quality arms as we can, and we’ll put those pieces in place as we get closer to Spring Training.”
Indeed, the Cubs are still far from being an elite, consistently competitive team, but good, small moves like this bring them ever closer.