When the Dodgers picked up Paul Maholm in February, for $1.5 million plus up to $5 million more in incentives, the reaction was the same one you get every time someone you've heard of signs a small contract. "A good low risk, no downside signing".
But if someone takes one of these incentive-laden deals it's usually for good reason. In Maholm's case, he was coming back from a 2013 that saw him miss time with a bruised left wrist and being left off the Braves post season roster in favor of Sweaty Freddy Garcia. The rest of the baseball world didn't seem to believe Maholm had much left in the tank, and even the Dodgers surprise last minute interest just seemed to be grabbing him because he was there rather than having any real interest.
The returns on Maholm have shown that those doubts were justified. While his 4.71 ERA is like being kicked in the testicles — awful, but won't kill you — everything points to him being fortunate to even have an ERA below five. His 5.90 FIP ranks third to last in the MLB1. His SIERA, which by design2 should be nicer to a guy giving up monster dingers to Brandon Crawford is also third to last. These basement level stats are almost entirely because Maholm can't throw the ball past anyone. His 8.9% strike out rate is last in the MLB, His 4.6% whiff rate, the percentage of pitches players swing and miss at, is also dead last. If you only count pitches people actually swing at, his 11% whiff rate is second to last3. Maholm is pitching like a guy who doesn't have anything left.
Maholm's performance this year is why I don't like calling these kind of signings "no downside". They only have no downside if you're actually willing to pull the plug when its apparent the guy is done. If Maholm's start Wednesday doesn't show a big turn around and we still don't have a date for Hyun-jin Ryu's return, it's time for Maholm to go. It's hard to argue at this point that Stephen Fife or even Red Patterson aren't better options.
Apart from the poor performance there's other downsides to having reclamation projects on your roster as well.
- Keeping Maholm on the 25-man hasn't hurt the Dodgers too badly yet, it's possible to argue the team could have held on to Seth Rosin or Javy Guerra for a few more days but that's about it. However, if he does stick around when Ryu comes back though you either have to go to a four man bench, or ship Chris Withrow back to Triple-A. He also creates another hurdle the team has to jump through for Paco Rodriguez to make it back into the pen.
- Similarly, the 40-man spot he's taking up isn't going to kill the team, but without Maholm the Dodgers could have held on to one of the guys they ejected from the 40-man this year like Justin Sellers or Nick Buss. It's probably not going to matter much, but there's always a chance one of these guys has a late career resurgence.
In return, here's what Maholm has given the Dodgers:
- We can assume Fife or Patterson could do what Maholm does, but it's possible they could be worse.
- We would have had to watch a Matt Magill start in Minnesota.
- Provides slightly more rotation depth, but if we're in a situation where Fife, Patterson and Maholm are getting regular starts no one out there is gonna be saying "thank God we have Paul Maholm"
Paul Maholm was a decent idea for a reclamation project but it's now clear he doesn't belong in a major league rotation. If the Dodgers don't pull the plug on him soon, the "low risk" deal could end up being the most harmful thing that Ned Colletti did this off season.
1. Minimum 30 innings, all numbers courtesy of Minor League Central.↩
2. The more stats a run estimator regresses, the worse it's going to be at identifying when a guy is totally shot since there's more ways you can attribute being terrible to bad luck.↩