The free-agent market for starting pitching has been slow to develop this offseason, but now that Masahiro Tanaka has chosen a team, signings are trickling in. Two recent NL West contracts demonstrate how uncertain that market can be. The Diamondbacks agreed to terms with Bronson Arroyo on a two-year, $23.5MM deal that includes an option for 2016, and the Dodgers signed Paul Maholm for one year and $1.5MM guaranteed, with the chance to make up to $5MM more in incentives.
There are clear differences between the two pitchers — Arroyo is a righty and Maholm is a lefty, and Arroyo has been the more durable of the two. That's a trend that might not persist, given that Arroyo is five years older than Maholm. But Maholm did miss a start in September due to elbow soreness (although an MRI revealed no structural trouble) and he pitched 49 fewer innings than Arroyo last year.
Arroyo and Maholm aren't that different, however. They're both low-upside, pitch-to-contact types who give their teams decent chances of winning as mid-rotation or back-of-the-rotation starters. And statistically, they're reasonably similar.
One could actually make the case that, over the past three seasons, Maholm has been better than Arroyo. As Fangraphs' David Cameron noted yesterday (via Twitter), Maholm appears to be quite a bargain in comparison. (I made a similar observation at my own blog.)
Others have noted the huge disparity between Maholm's contract and that of Jason Vargas, who received four years and $32MM from the Royals earlier this winter. Like Maholm, Vargas is a 31-year-old, pitch-to-contact lefty. Vargas has produced 4.5 WAR over the last three seasons, compared to 4.6 for Maholm.
The common thread here may be the perception that Arroyo and Vargas are more likely to give their new teams 200 innings. (Vargas only pitched 150 last season after missing time due to a blood clot, but he threw at least 201 in both 2011 and 2012.) If that's the case, however, the market seems to be overreacting. In theory, a team could easily get two Maholm-type fragile pitchers and hope for them to combine for 250 or so decent innings, rather than paying Arroyo or Vargas many times more. A team would have to clear an extra spot on its roster that way, but that seems like a small matter compared to the savings in dollars.
In fact, in a way, this seems to be what the Dodgers are doing — they'll have Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dan Haren for the first four spots, and then Maholm, Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley will soak up the remaining innings. (Beckett and Billingsley are both returning from injury.) If Arroyo posts 200 innings, that's surely useful, but given that his innings aren't the highest quality, a team should be able to compensate for reduced back-of-the-rotation certainty with greater depth.
Among Arroyo, Vargas and Maholm, Maholm is probably the outlier. MLBTR's Tim Dierkes' projection for Arroyo's contract was almost exactly on the money, while Maholm's contract, at least the guaranteed portion, falls well short of Dierkes' projected one year and $7MM. Perhaps teams are simply extremely concerned about Maholm's elbow. (In fact, that seems at least somewhat likely, given Maholm's apparent openness to pitching in relief. One would think a pitcher of his caliber would be able to find a sure starting job somewhere.)
If not, though, Maholm's deal doesn't bode well for a pitcher like lefty free agent Chris Capuano. Capuano's value has been similar to Vargas or Maholm the past three seasons (with 4.8 total fWAR), but he only pitched 105 2/3 innings last year due to a series of injuries, and he has two Tommy John surgeries in his past. Given Capuano's tendency to pitch reasonably strong innings when healthy, though, he could give his next team great value. Maholm's contract could be a bargain for the Dodgers, and the team that picks up Capuano could be in line for a bargain as well.