Bucs have big decision to make about Maholm

Bucs have big decision to make about Maholm

Bucs have big decision to make about Maholm
PITTSBURGH -- He may not view it as such, but Paul Maholm is making a pitch for his future each time he takes the mound this season.

His hope, too, is that the Pirates are taking notice.

Maholm is nearing the end of the guaranteed portion of a $14.5 million contract that was signed in January 2009. Attention now, though, is turning to a different sum, one that most assumed would be inconsequential given the way Maholm performed through the first two years of the three-year deal.

That $9.75 million club option for 2012 -- an option that can be voided through a $750,000 buyout -- could very much be in play if Maholm continues to perform the way he has through his first 15 starts of 2011.

Or could it be that even more money and longer terms are in order?

Maholm has no qualms with making his stance public. He wants the chance to see if his career with the Pirates -- a tenure that began when Pittsburgh used its first pick in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft to snag a 20-year-old left-hander out of Mississippi State's baseball program -- can last beyond even 2012.

"I'd really love to be here to see how it would be playing in October here," Maholm said. "I already know how the Penguins are treated here. I know how the Steelers are treated. It would be nice to be able to go through that.

"My wife and I, we enjoy it here. We've gotten to know a lot of people outside of baseball through a lot of different things we've done. It would be tough to break that all of a sudden."

If it were up to him, he'd negotiate right now. He is curious to know whether mutual ground could be found on an extension that would keep him in Pittsburgh, and he wants to know if he is in the organization's long-term plans.

And he would actually prefer that these conversations take place during the season.

"It's not like I would be offended by anything," he said. "It's a negotiation. It's not us being buddies. It's not like, just because they'd come to me, I'd go to the tank just because I didn't like their offer."

The Pirates don't have a blanket policy when it comes to midseason negotiations. That said, such talks are not the preference of general manager Neal Huntington, and he stated such again when asked about Maholm's situation this week.

"We would very much prefer not to negotiate in-season," Huntington said, "but it's not an absolute policy. It's something that we'll look at on a case-by-case basis, but the strong preference is to do these things outside of the season."

If the Pirates were to wait until after the season, they'd be in competition with as many as 29 other teams for Maholm's services. And that would not be ideal, as the Pirates want to establish Maholm's value themselves.

But perhaps the absence of open negotiations is a tell-tale sign of where the Pirates are headed -- toward a split with the longest-tenured player on the current Major League roster. So if Huntington is leaning this way -- and no, he's not tipping his hand -- Maholm could be headed elsewhere months before that extension even comes into play.

The Pirates can look at Maholm's results one of two ways: Either the improved numbers are reason to keep him around to help anchor the staff beyond this year, or they could prompt Pittsburgh to dangle the pending free agent as a trade chip as the July 31 Trade Deadline approaches.

Maholm is well aware that the latter is a possibility. He spent most of last July hearing his name floating in the rumor mill as well.

"It's part of the game," Maholm said. "My job is to be prepared to pitch. Me dwelling on whether I'm going to be here [or] whether I'm not going to be here isn't going to do the team any good. It isn't going to do me any good. I have zero control over it."

The Pirates' decision on retaining Maholm will likely come down to a few factors. The first is for the number crunchers in the front office, who will seek to determine whether the club can expect Maholm's results to be sustained beyond this year.

Maholm posted a 5.10 ERA in a glaringly inconsistent 2010 campaign. His ERA the year before that was a mundane 4.44. Through 15 starts this season, it sits at 3.29. In addition, Maholm is averaging 6 1/3 innings per start after averaging fewer than six last year.

The improvement isn't the by-product of some drastic change in mechanics or pitch repertoire. Rather, he attributes it primarily to pitching inside deliberately and more often. It's an adjustment that was recommended by manager Clint Hurdle during the offseason, and it's a long-term fix that would suggest the results are no fluke.

That should help Maholm's case.

"We'll go back as far as three years, and [ask]: What trends are we seeing from both a subjective and an objective point?" Huntington said when asked to describe the organization's evaluation process. "Why has it been better or worse than the prior year? Why has it been better or worse than this year? And what do we project going forward for whatever the duration of the extension might be, or the duration of whatever the contract might be?"

The decision will also be affected by how the Pirates see the rest of the pitching staff shaping up. Maholm's four rotation-mates are all under team control next year. And with a slew of prospects potentially ready to be in a big league rotation by 2012 (think Brad Lincoln, Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson, Jeff Locke), perhaps the Pirates will deem it advantageous to see what they can get for Maholm at the Trade Deadline while opening a rotation spot for a younger arm.

The value of a veteran lefty starter cannot be understated. That could work in the Pirates' favor should they attempt to deal Maholm. Or it could be reason to hold onto him. The average salary of the 20 left-handers who are leading the Majors in ERA is just over $4.6 million this season. The range is from as low as the Major League minimum ($410,000) to CC Sabathia's $23 million payday.

Though Maholm would command more than that average, his salary likely wouldn't be significantly above it. And such would be a price that most teams would gladly pay a left-hander who has made at least 29 starts in each of his first five full big league seasons.

The question simply remains whether the Pirates will be one of them.

"They know me. They know my agent," Maholm said. "I'm not going to go beg for it, but if they want to talk, we'll see what we can come up with. It's not a guarantee that it would work out, but at least we would know where we stood."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.