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Starkey: Perfect team for Paul Maholm

| Thursday, June 2, 2011

Don't feel bad if you're assuming the Pirates soon will dump pitcher Paul Maholm, who carries a $9.75 million club option for next season.

Your assumption is well-earned. You could no doubt recite the deeply worn line of thinking in your sleep: These are the Pirates, and they would never pick up that kind of option ... a multiyear deal is out of the question, too, because God forbid this team commits major resources to a pitcher ... the franchise would fold ... they'd have to rename PNC Park Pauley Pavilion ... besides, Maholm could fetch a couple of prospects sure to have seamheads drooling and dreaming of a future filled with World Series parades.

To which I say, wake up and smell the grande triple vanilla non-fat no-foam whipped cream light caramel macchiato (I'll take a coffee, black, please).

Seriously, wake up. Start demanding an answer to the question that has tortured Pirates fans for years: When is now?

Now is now.

Now is here.

That doesn't mean this team is ready to contend. It does mean that when everybody is looking at one of your players because he's good, maybe you should make an honest effort to keep him for that very reason. Especially when he's still in his 20s and is your only left-handed starter this side of Rudy Owens (Triple-A, 4.95 ERA).

Of course, general manager Neal Huntington should listen to Maholm suitors. He should ask for the moon and stars. But unless somebody is offering major league or major league-ready talent — key word there being "talent" — he should hang up and get back to crafting an offer that will keep Maholm where he belongs — here.

Not only is Maholm a rare commodity as a durable left-handed starter in his prime, he's also the kind of person team president Frank Coonelly has said he wants to build around: a community presence, a non-complainer (despite ample reason), a leader.

I love spending other people's money — especially Bob Nutting's — so let's say Maholm bites on something like $25 million over three years. That's a little less than what Randy Wolf got over the same span from Milwaukee, and though he's five years older than the soon-to-be 29-year-old Maholm, Wolf's skills are fairly comparable.

Maholm isn't Steve Carlton, but he brings to the mound today in New York an ERA (3.18) superior to those of notable fellow lefties Cliff Lee, Wandy Rodriguez and Wolf. Forget Maholm's 2-7 record. Nobody cares. Look at his ERA and WHIP (1.17, third among NL lefties) and all the other measurables that have nothing do with the luck stat of run support.

Sure, you could argue Maholm's stellar start is an aberration. Just remember, he posted fabulous numbers over a full season in 2008 and even when he faltered over parts of the next two years, his ERA remained in the top 15 among southpaws in the 16-team National League.

How rare are respectable left-handers• Maholm's 5.10 ERA last season ranked 13th among NL lefties.

Maholm provides stability. Signing him would be a message to Pirates fans that "now" is something more than an abstract concept. If you have to eat the $9.75 million option, eat it, and bring Maholm back next season.

It's not like the Pirates are hamstrung by any huge contracts, though Joel Hanrahan will need a new deal and Andrew McCutchen is a candidate for one. Salary increases for Charlie Morton, James McDonald and others could complicate things, as well, but if all this means is the Pirates have to put some real money into the major league payroll, well, it's about time.

It would also give them just cause to raise season-ticket prices after a nine-year freeze.

So yes, Mr. Huntington, listen to each and every offer. But in the end, if nothing blows you away, consider the following concept: The perfect team for Paul Maholm just might be the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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