Going into this offseason, there was some expectation that the Cubs would make a big splash. Starting back in May, when then-Cardinal Albert Pujols hugged then-GM Jim Hendry, there was a sizable group of fans who well and truly believed that the Cubs were going to sign either Pujols or Prince Fielder to push them into a bright and glorious future on the corner of Clark and Addison.
I like Anthony Rizzo as much as the next fellow, but it’s looking more and more like the Cubs’ big splash this offseason is going to be the addition of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in the front office. While the massive signing may not come to fruition, the Cubs have actively made the team more cost effective in the short-term and positioned them for more competitive play before too long. Still, every team has to play 162 games in 2012, whether they want to or not, and its in that spirit that the Cubs have signed Paul Maholm, a pitcher whose 26 starts in 2011 were a career low. Though the moniker is seldom applied to him the way it is to, say, Livan Hernandez, Maholm is a true innings eater. He’ll likely give the Cubs close to 200 innings come hell or high water, but the question for potential fantasy owners is how good those innings will be. Is he a player worth watching ahead of draft day?
Maholm strikes out about 14 percent of the hitters he faces and walks 7-8 percent, which means a lot of the plate appearances against him end with a ball in play. The last time the Pirates — the only other club Maholm has ever played with — didn’t have one of the 10 least efficient defenses was 2005. Maholm became a full-time starter in 2006. This isn’t to say that bad defense was the sole reason Maholm has struggled to put up good numbers for most of his career, but it is certainly part of the issue. For the last four seasons, Maholm’s FIP has stayed between 3.78 and 4.18 while his ERA has swung from 3.66 to 5.10; his WHIP over the same period fluctuated from 1.28 to 1.56. Maholm has at some times been completely unusable fantasy-wise and at others has been a decent back-end option.
The bad news is that the Cubs weren’t particularly stellar on defense last year either, though the squad they’ll present in 2012 bears only marginal resemblance to the one they used for most of 2011, so there’s reason to believe they’ll be better — though they couldn’t really get much worse. Maholm is also missing fewer bats than he used to miss; his swinging strike rate has fallen consistently since 2008 from a high of 8.4 percent down to 2011’s career worst 5.7 percent, which means all the more balls in play and all the more chances for his defense to determine what kind of fantasy pitcher he’ll be.
In a traditional 5X5 context, I don’t see him winning a lot of ballgames — sorry Cubs fans, that day isn’t here yet — and he’s definitely not a great option for strikeouts, which means his value is almost entirely tied up in his ERA and WHIP, which is in turn tied up in the team’s defensive ability. Ian Stewart may not be the next Scott Rolen defensively, but he’s a fair sight better than Aramis Ramirez was likely to be, which helps improve their infield defense, and while the outfield looks largely the same as it did last year, if Alfonso Soriano is moved — as many observers believe he will be — whoever they use to replace him in left will almost certainly upgrade the outfield defense.
Still, there’s a huge amount of volatility around Maholm. Peripherally speaking, he was largely the same pitcher in 2010 and 2011, yet his fantasy numbers could hardly have been more different — for more on this phenomenon, see Pavano, Carl — and that makes me nervous. In mixed, you don’t need to add this amount of risk with the plethora of other options available. In NL-only, however, deeper league players may need to look at Maholm in the later rounds to fill up a staff. I think you can do worse than Maholm — if he could contribute even a little bit in the strikeout category, then I’d be much higher on him — but if you think you’ll end up looking in Maholm’s direction, it would behoove you to pay close attention to how the Cubs defense looks in spring training. The difference between good Maholm and bad Maholm won’t be how many sliders he throws or an extra tic on his sub-90s fastball as much as it will be Starlin Castro’s maturation a shortstop and someone other than Soriano patrolling Wrigley’s left field.
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