This past week there has been some hand-wringing and pearl-clutching by Pittsburgh media, ranging from print to e-print to radio to TV, over the potential trade of Mark Melancon. Frankly, I’d be more surprised if he was here on Opening Day than if he was traded.
I’ve projected the Pirates to have a $105M Opening Day payroll. If Melancon receives between $9M to $10M in arbitration, it just doesn’t make sense to tie up nearly 10% of the payroll to a reliever, no matter how good he may be. Melancon pitches roughly 73 innings on average. A top tier starter will pitch 210-220, so in essence, Melancon is being paid as if he would be a $30M/year pitcher — there’s just no need for that.
To say nothing of the fact that Melancon’s key peripherals have been trending downward for the past three years:
One of the concerns about trading Melancon is not really who will close (most people, even the pearl-clutchers in the media and the fanbase, seem cool with installing Watson), but rather who will be the setup man after Watson moves up. These people are forgetting that the return on Melancon is not a salary dump or will consist of Low A prospects; rather, this will be a baseball trade. The Pirates should receive at least one, if not two, pieces that can help the major-league team from Opening Day 2016. Neal Huntington likes years of control. He’ll sell Melancon’s one year and extract a plethora of controllable years from multiple players.
The Padres recently traded their top two relievers in Joaquin Benoit and Craig Kimbrel. However, those returns aren’t truly indicative of what the Pirates can receive. The Padres were more interesting in clearing salary so that they can re-balance their team and fill needs. They got prospects back, not players that will contribute in 2016 to the San Diego Padres. The Pirates always have one eye on the payroll, of course, but they aren’t salary dumping Melancon (they will with Alvarez, but that’s different). If the Pirates can get two relievers back, with one projecting to be a setup/closer down the line, all while saving a couple million, that will be a good trade.
People this week also had some medium-term memory loss when discussing the potential absence of Melancon. You would think that Melancon has been here for 15+ years, like Mariano Rivera, instead of just three years with only one as the primary closer.
In fact, the last three Pirate closers have all been reclamation projects that grew into the role.
- Melancon (obtained via trade with Boston on 12/26/12) had a 6.20 ERA in 2012 with the Red Sox and was demoted to the minors for a period of time.
- Jason Grilli (signed as a minor league free agent on 7/21/11) was a journeyman reliever plucked from the Phillies’ Triple A team. He didn’t even pitch in the Majors in 2010 and in 2009 with Texas had a 4.78 ERA. His career was in jeopardy due to a quad injury.
- Joel Hanrahan wasn’t even the key piece in his trade (obtained via trade from Washington on 6/30/09). That distinction belonged to Lastings Milledge. At the time, Hanrahan was a washed-out closer with a 7.11 ERA.
Compared to those three, the Pirates have a much smoother potential transition with the dominating Tony Watson. Provided that the Pirates obtain a setup man, either via the Melancon trade or other means, Arquimedes Caminero should be able to reliably fill the 7th inning slot. This would leave Jared Hughes to maintain his role as the fireman that comes in when things are all jammed up.
The Royals set the template for showing how a dominating bullpen can shorten a game and lock down wins. The Pirates had a version of this last year once they traded for Joakim Soria (who wasn’t dominant, but at least effective). The Soria-Watson-Melancon was, more often than not, the end of times for the opposing team.
But none of those pitchers were created as extraordinary relievers. Soria and Watson were both drafted as starters and due to either injuries (Soria) or ineffectiveness (Watson) became closers and setup men. Closers are engineered, not created from the heavens. You need two things to be a great closer: at least one plus-plus pitch and a mentality to forget the previous day, good or bad. That’s it.
I’m not saying just anyone can close, but it’s not some ultra-elite, rare talent as some would have you believe. The Pirates can re-engineer their bullpen in 2016 to be fantastic again. It’s just not present yet.