With C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle now gone, the free-agent market for starting pitchers is low on upside and high on risk. It got a small boost on Monday night, when the Diamondbacks non-tendered Joe Saunders to avoid paying him roughly $8 million in arbitration, but the pickings remain slim.
Nonetheless, one pitcher in particular is strangely being overlooked. When Saunders became a free agent, rumors immediately spread suggesting that multiple teams—including the Red Sox—would have interest. Yet there is another lefty still on the market who is both younger and more effective than Saunders: Paul Maholm.
The 29-year-old Maholm will never contend for a Cy Young award, but he deserves far more attention than he’s received. Maholm’s 6-14 record jumps off the stat sheet first, but his career-best 3.75 FIP from last season is far more important, and he was worth 2.0 WARP compared to Saunders’ 1.3.
With a fastball that sits in the 86-88 mph range and only one strong off-speed offering (a slider), Maholm won’t miss many bats. But he makes up for that by keeping his walk rate below 3.00 per nine innings, and inducing plenty of ground balls to keep his home-run rate down. Though he missed the last month and a half of the 2011 season with a shoulder strain, Maholm had no prior history of arm trouble and was cleared for workouts in late October.
A significant portion of Maholm’s struggles can be attributed to the Pirates’ inability to convert balls put in play against him into outs. Pittsburgh has ranked in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency in each of the last three seasons, bloating Maholm’s BABIP over .325 in 2009 and 2010. Conversely, Saunders benefitted from a strong Arizona defense this past season, logging a .271 BABIP that’s well below his career mark of .289.
Maholm is by no means an ace, but he has the potential to be an effective third or fourth starter on a contender with solid gloves, particularly in the infield. Assuming his shoulder is healthy, as reported, Maholm can be counted on for at least 180 league-average innings. In a market where quality pitchers are hard to find, Maholm—who is likely to settle for a short-term deal even though he is still in his prime—could be a diamond in the rough.