In Which A Post About Lyle Overbay Becomes A Pretext For More Ranting About The Perils Of The Free-Agent Market

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 04: Lyle Overbay #37 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrates a run with Paul Maholm #28 during the game against the Houston Astros on July 4, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The ridiculous thing that follows began as a community projection review of Lyle Overbay's season, so here goes.

Player Community ZiPS Actual
Lyle Overbay .261/.346/.432 .244/.336/.423 .227/.300/.349 (with Pirates); .234/.310/.360 overall

No one predicted Overbay would have a slugging percentage beneath .400, so no one in the community was particularly close. I myself didn't issue a prediction, but if I had, it probably would have been near ZiPS, with a low batting average but with some walks and power. As it turned out, all we got was the walks. Overbay was -.8 wins below replacement level with the Pirates, which is remarkably bad.

Collapses of this magnitude will always be possibilities for players Overbay's age, and a collapse seemed particularly possible in Overbay's case after a 2010 season in which his batting average had dropped 22 points from the previous year, suggesting the possibility that he was having trouble reacting quickly enough to get around on balls. But you didn't have to believe Overbay was going to be anywhere near this bad to see from the outset that signing him wasn't a good idea, since even the rosy projections for how he might hit weren't particularly impressive. 

Whatever. At this point, the less said about Overbay, the better.

... Oh, what the heck. Apologies, everyone! I'm going to talk about Paul Maholm again! I'm going to beat that drum until it breaks! Earplugs may be necessary! Apologies all around!

Fun fact! Lyle Overbay and Kevin Correia made a combined total of $9 million in 2011. (Actually $10 million, since Correia had a $2 million signing bonus, but let's assume, for the sake of fairness, that the bonus is distributed over the life of the contract. So ... yeah. That fun fact was neither fun nor a fact.)

Now, Paul Maholm's 2012 option also costs $9 million ($9.75 million minus a $750,000 buyout, which is a sunk cost). 

Overbay is a lot older than Maholm, and Correia is a couple years older as well. Older players are more likely to rapidly decline than younger ones. But let's assume that Overbay's total collapse wasn't foreseeable. There's still the fact that Neal Huntington had $9 million to work with, and he went and got a 34-year-old first baseman who'd been 1.3 wins above replacement the previous year, and a starting pitcher who'd been exactly replacement level.

Maholm has been two or more wins above replacement in four straight seasons. So, okay, if you're opposed to picking up the Maholm option, why? Is it because you believe that Huntington can do better with that $9 million in the free agent market? Because the evidence is staring you right in the face that he can't. Last year he had $9 million, and he spent it on a replacement-level starting pitcher and a moderately useful, but aging, first baseman - and the Pirates got absolutely nothing out of them. (And lest you think I'm cherry-picking, his other offseason free-agent acquisitions haven't been much better.)

Now, if you think the Pirates shouldn't pick up the Maholm option because they should plow every penny they have into the draft, or because all that money will be necessary to re-sign Andrew McCutchen, or because you for some reason think that the Pirates simply shouldn't ever spend $9 million on one player, that's fine, I guess.

But let's stipulate, hypothetically, that the Bucs are going to spend $15 million this offseason. If you don't think they should pick up the option because they'll find a better use for that money this offseason, I humbly submit that you are probably wrong.

In fact, I'm about 90 percent sure that if the Pirates made a list of the top free agents from the best to the worst, and started calling each of them in order and offering them each a one-year, $9 million contract until someone took it, they'd end up calling Maholm. And then Maholm would turn them down, and the Pirates would end up calling about a dozen more players before finding a taker. No one wants to play for the Pirates. This is how the Pirates end up signing the likes of Lyle Overbay and Kevin Correia.

In fact, the only place where the Pirates' barrel-scraping offseason act actually works is the bullpen, because relievers just generally don't make a lot of money. But picking up Maholm's option isn't going to preclude Huntington from spending a few hundred thousand bucks on the next D.J. Carrasco or Jose Veras

So, okay - this post was supposed to be about the Pirates' first basemen in 2011. But here's my point: the lesson I take from the Overbay signing is essentially that the Pirates typically can't get good talent in the offseason free agent market. Someone pointed out at the time of the signing that if signing Overbay had been something the Royals had done, we Bucs fans would all have been laughing hysterically. It was a bad signing at the time that turned out to be even worse than it looked.

I won't fault the Bucs too much for the "even worse" part, but for pete's sake, when the Pirates have a bird in the hand like the Maholm option, they should probably take it, or else the free-agent market is going to destroy them. They don't have the money to be players for the top free agents, which already means their talent pool is going to be aging role players and players who are seriously flawed. Add in the fact that, for now, very few players with a choice will come to Pittsburgh, and you've got a terrible combination that leads to silliness like paying $5 million for Lyle Overbay. So when you get a shot at $9 million for Maholm, who pitches pretty well and fills a position of need, just take it. I'm not saying Maholm is a great player or that he doesn't have any risk of collapse himself. But unless the Pirates have something special up their sleeves (and they never, ever do, at least not in the offseason), Maholm is probably the most attractive gamble they're going to see.

It should be noted here, too, that I'm not saying that Neal Huntington is a bad GM who can't be trusted to spend money properly. (Although I do think all his major offseason acquisitions last year were bad ideas, and I said so at the time.) I'm saying he's been dealt a terrible hand. Hypothetically (and non-politically) speaking, let's say there's an ambitious young candidate for president. He's bright, he has good policy ideas, he performs well in debates, and so on. The problem is that his name is "Peter Buttwrinkle." There are two things I know to be true in this world: no one (well, except maybe emotionally-stunted bloggers writing posts at 4:30 in the morning) wants to vote for a man named Buttwrinkle, and no major-league veteran wants to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The talent of the candidate or GM in question ain't got nothing to do with it.

I hope to be proven wrong. I really do. But the next time the Pirates are able to actually pull off a genuinely splashy, intelligent free agent acquisition will be the first in eons. What I suspect will happen is that we'll hear about how the Pirates made "competitive" offers for players like Ramon Hernandez and Carlos Pena and Derrek Lee and Edwin Jackson but were ultimately, frustratingly, unforeseeably turned down, and then somehow ended up stuck with Gerald Laird, Russell Branyan and Joel Pineiro

Oh yeah, Derrek Lee. He was really good, wasn't he? That was a nice acquisition. Note that it was a trade that brought him to Pittsburgh. He did not join the Pirates by choice. Huntington corrected the error he made in the offseason free-agent market with a good trade in-season. That kind of move is possible for a team in the Pirates' position. Just getting Lee at the beginning of the season in the first place probably wouldn't have been. If I were a free agent, I'd much rather go to the Pirates than the Orioles, but I think I'd be in the minority on that one.

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