Long stretches of losing baseball can have devastating tolls on MLB teams. Perhaps none knows this better than the Pirates. The team hasn’t finished above .500 since Barry Bonds left after the 1992 season, and the futility has predictably dampened attendance. In the past seven seasons the team hasn’t finished better than 27th in the league in attendance. That necessarily means less revenue, which means that the Pirates have to play a different economic game than most of the league. This comes into play with their longest-tenured pitcher, Paul Maholm.
For the second straight season the Pirates will pay their players less than $40 million. This has been the case six times in the last 11 years. Part of the reason is that a perpetual loser has difficulty luring high-priced free agents. But a larger part of the problem is that the team doesn’t have the revenue stream to support a payroll much larger. Team president Frank Coonelly discussed the issue in a recent interview with Pirates Prospects:
Today, no but we will be able to support that payroll ($70 to $80 million) very soon if our fans believe that we now have a group of players in Pittsburgh and on its way here in the near future that is competitive. We need to take a meaningful step forward in terms of attendance to reach that payroll number while continuing to invest heavily in our future but I am convinced that the attendance will move quickly once we convince our fans that we are on the right track.
That’s going to take quite a vote of confidence from the fans, who will likely have to suffer a 19th straight year of losing baseball in 2011. Even if the Pirates convince some of their fans that they are on the path to success, chances are attendance will not increase to the point where they can add significant payroll in 2012. They will then have to seek out below market options to fill out the roster, in hopes that their young players eventually deliver a season near .500, which could possibly provide impetus for the team to invest more heavily in market value players.
The good news is that Pittsburgh has just $10.625 million committed to 2012 payroll. Furthermore, their best player, Andrew McCutchen, will still earn a pre-arbitration salary. They also likely won’t see a big uptick in payroll due to arbitration, even though they have nine eligible players. None figures to be a particularly costly case, which should help keep their post-arbitration obligations under $25 million. That leaves room, even with a $40 to $50 million payroll, for a few players, particularly pitchers, at market-value contracts. But I’m not sure Maholm is the guy.
This year Maholm earns $5.75 million, a value he has exceeded in each of his five full major league seasons, in terms of WAR dollars. The concern is not with his 2011 salary, but rather his 2012 option, which comes in at $9.75 million. That is right around his projected market value. The issue comes with Maholm’s pitching independent numbers, which determine his WAR, vs. his results. In three of his five major league seasons, including the last two, Maholm’s ERA has outpaced his FIP. The only season in which he has beaten his FIP by a significant margin came in 2008, which was by far his best season in the bigs.
While Maholm can certainly provide value — he easily exceeded $9.75 million in WAR dollars in 2008 and 2009 — he might not be the type of player on whom the Pirates should spend those market value dollars. They need to be careful with every dollar they spend as they rebuild the team. A better value, if not a better pitcher, than Maholm will provide them with a stopgap, which is what Maholm is at this point, anyway.
In that way, trading Maholm at the deadline might be the best move for the long term. That way they can continue adding young players to their system while eliminating the fan-friendly option of picking up Maholm’s contract. That might hurt in the short term, as trading Maholm could make the team worse in 2011. But in the long term it allows them to add a player who might be a part of the next Pirates team that finishes above .500 and, perhaps, makes the playoffs. It doesn’t appear that Maholm, as he enters his free agency years, is going to be around for that payoff in the rebuilding phase.
Trading a long-tenured and well-liked player such as Maholm is never easy for a team, especially when losing him probably means downgrading the pitching staff in the short term. But the Pirates can’t afford to think in the short term right now. Their focus should be on building a stable of players that can bring it out of a nearly two-decades-long rut. Maholm is a valuable pitcher in many ways, but as he approaches free agency, he’s not going to provide as much value for the Pirates as he can for another team. Come deadline time, the Pirates would do well to shop Maholm and get back players who will be around for that next great Pirates team.