To be clear at the outset here, I’m not entirely sure if Mark Gonzales is reporting that the Cubs are specifically considering/discussing/negotiating/whatevering with free agent starting pitcher Paul Maholm. You can read Gonzales’s piece for yourself and determine whether he’s making that level of a connection, or if he’s simply saying that the Cubs will be considering a lower tier of pitching targets – which includes Maholm – if they miss out on Masahiro Tanaka.
In any event, Gonzales’s report offers a spring board to dig into whether Maholm would actually make sense for the Cubs.
As you no doubt recall, Maholm entered 2012 with the Cubs before being flipped midseason, together with Reed Johnson, in a deal that netted the Cubs Arodys Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman. That year, in total, the 29/30-year-old Maholm pitched well enough for a back-end starter: 3.67 ERA and 2.64 K/BB over 189 innings. That was good enough for a 2.2 WAR, plenty for a 5th starter. His groundball rate (51.2%) was very good, his BABIP wasn’t especially fortuitous (.281 versus career mark around .300 at the time), and he succeeded despite an elevated HR/FB rate (12.8%). It was a good year.
In 2013, pitching for the Braves, Maholm’s output regressed: 4.41 ERA, 2.23 K/BB, 153 innings. Thing is, the changes from 2012 were actually very slight: his GB rate was still good (51.3%), his walk rate climbed only slightly (from 6.7% to 7.0%), and his strikeout rate dipped only a little (17.8% to 15.7%). So what happened? Well, his BABIP rose to .310 (so more balls were put in play, and more of them fell for hits), and his already-high HR/FB rate climbed to 13.8%.
Alarmingly, those latter numbers may have been tied to a steep increase in the line drive rate he allowed. With a career mark under 20%, and a rate just a touch over that the previous two years, Maholm’s LD% in 2013 was all the way up at 23.8%.
Is that a sign of a flukey year? Or a sign that Maholm simply lost some effectiveness, and started getting hammered? It’s hard to say for sure without having watched him obsessively over the course of the year, but it’s worth noting that Maholm – never a hard-thrower – has lost a couple MPH off of his fastball over the course of the last few years. In the big leagues, even small changes register quickly on the scoreboard, so maybe there’s a real issue here. Still, the peripherals generally looked fine last year.
One positive weighing in favor of Maholm? He clearly clicked with pitching coach Chris Bosio, given how well Maholm pitched in the first half for the Cubs in 2012.
Strictly speaking, and particularly in light of what projects to be a non-competitive 2014 season for the Cubs, adding Maholm or someone like him just to round out the rotation is not absolutely necessary. As I wrote earlier this month, the Cubs’ rotational depth looks something like this:
Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson, Jake Arrieta, Carlos Villanueva/Chris Rusin. There will be other guys competing for that fifth spot, but Villanueva and Rusin are obviously the top candidates. The one who doesn’t get the job is your de facto sixth starter, and the seventh comes from a group including Brooks Raley, Justin Grimm, Alberto Cabrera, Kyle Hendricks, Brett Marshall, Neil Ramirez, Eric Jokisch, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Dallas Beeler, among others.
There would be no harm in bringing Maholm back on an inexpensive deal, but I don’t know that he’s a dramatic improvement – in terms of win-value to the 2014 Cubs, or in terms of flippable value if he’s given starts – over the value of just letting Villanueva or Rusin take the job, or allowing a youngster to try and win the gig. Of course, adding Maholm gives the Cubs additional cover to shop another starter like Samardzija or Villanueva (who could offer considerable swing value to a contender in 2014), and depth never hurts, so long as you can keep everyone happy and not lose a promising youngster due to a roster crunch.
If not Maholm, the other next-tier options the Cubs have reportedly considered are Scott Baker, who is still looking for the right deal after a couple lost Tommy John seasons (the latter of which was spent making just a few starts for the Cubs), and Jason Hammel, who is probably my preferred free agent back-end option, if the Cubs go this route.
As for the expensive non-Tanaka guys, you can expect the Cubs not to be seriously involved in any of Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, or Ervin Santana. Sure, if one of the latter two has their market utterly collapse and has to settle for a dirt cheap two-year deal, the Cubs might pull the trigger and give up the second round pick for some perceived surplus value. That is highly unlikely to happen, and it’s definitely not going to happen with Garza, so don’t expect it.