Last week on 93.7 The FAN, GM Neal Huntington didn’t rule out that the Pirates may have to trade Mark Melancon this offseason, due to escalating salary and just one remaining year of team control. This was something we’ve been discussing for a while now, especially in last week’s 2016 payroll and roster article. All of the other 29 MLB teams would like to have Mark Melancon on their rosters, even the deep bullpens of the Yankees and Royals (especially with Greg Holland out for 2016). But not everyone is at the same spot on the win cycle. A closer (or setup man, in some cases for some teams) with a potential $8.8M salary in 2016 may be viewed as a luxury. For some teams, his salary is too pricey, no matter his role.
The Pirates are kind of one of those teams where he’s too pricey, hence the need to potentially trade him to re-allocate those dollars elsewhere in the budget. Since there are so many viable destinations for Melancon, I’m going to limit this article to the five that I believe are the most likely.
The Mariners have a new GM in town, in the form of Jerry Dipoto. He has a mandate to not rebuild, but rather augment around the core group of Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz, Felix Hernandez, and Robinson Cano. The Mariners had bullpen issues for most of 2015, so the chance to get a Proven Closer ? could be very appealing. The Mariners have an interesting group of four bullpen arms that I could see the Pirates targeting in a trade. Two of them are younger, up-and-coming types in Carson Smith (age-26 in 2016) and Tony Zych (age-25). Two are more veteran players that had down years in 2015 in Tom Wilhelmson (age-32) and Danny Farquhar (age-29).
If the Pirates can get two of these four guys, probably one from the young category and one from the reclamation category, that can go a long way towards re-building a bullpen that has three to four potential openings. My personal preference would be Tony Zych ($500,000 estimated) and Tom Wilhelmson ($3M est. from MLB Trade Rumors) as the package returning back to Pittsburgh. Wilhelmson would assume the setup position, while Zych is groomed to then take over as the closer in the future, probably when this same exercise is repeated using Tony Watson. Zych would be the key for me, as his 96 mph fastball and 83 mph slider have closer material written all over.
New President of Baseball Operations, Dave Dombrowski, was plagued by inconsistent bullpens during his time in Detroit, so it’s hard to imagine that he isn’t going to instruct his new GM, Mike Hazen, to rectify that issue. The Red Sox do have de facto closer Koji Uehara under contract for 2016 at $9m, but he’s going to be 41 years old in 2016 and is starting to leak a little oil. Melancon can become the closer, Uehara at setup, with Junichi Tazawa as the 7th inning guy.
Interestingly, the best return for Melancon from the Red Sox would be Brock Holt. These two were part of the original six player deal that sent Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to the Sox for Melancon, Stolmy Pimental, Ivan DeJesus Jr, and Jerry Sands back in December 2012. But both players would fill needs for these teams. Melancon gives a stable closer for the Red Sox, while Brock Holt ($500,000 est in 2016, with four years of remaining control) gives the Pirates another super-utility guy that can be a productive member of the bench and part-time starter. Holt can be the 4th OF or the backup middle infielder, all for a very cheap salary that can help re-allocate monies to other areas of need.
The team that Dombrowski was dismissed from is looking to jump right back in the playoff mix in 2016 and is willing to spend money to do so. As a result, the Tigers strike me as another viable trade partner that would love to have a dependable arm locking down the 9th inning. At first blush, the Pirates and Tigers don’t match up particularly well in terms of what the Pirates may see for a return.
I would love to say the Pirates could scoop up Bruce Rondon and his 97 mph fastball and four years of team control, but his attitude and work ethic were brought into the spotlight when the Tigers dismissed him from the active team roster for the last week of the season. He may seem like too much of a mental reclamation project, as opposed to the magic that Ray Searage works with physical mechanics on a pitcher. Although he wouldn’t be the sole return, Ian Krol could be interesting as a return piece. His surface numbers (28 IP, 8.36 K/9, 5.46 BB/9, 5.79 ERA) don’t jump out at you positively, but he appears to have started mixing in a cutter this year at 88 mph that graded out well (+3.66 runs/100 pitches) and a good curveball (+2.63 runs/100 pitches). Essentially, the Pirates could be picking up Mark Melancon 2.0 to groom as a setup man once some tweaking is completed.
Krol is still a min-salary player in 2016 ($500,000 approx.) and has four years of team control remaining.
Minnesota had a surprisingly good 2016 season and hung around the periphery of the wild card until the last week of the season. With a young core of talent on the roster and still arriving in 2016, Minnesota has designs of increasing payroll and making a run at the AL Central title. The good news for Melancon is that his declining strikeout won’t bother the Twins, as their bullpen had a league-worst rate of 6.9 K/9, so Melancon’s 7.3 K/9 will look heroic to them. Melancon would probably yield to Glen Perkins as the closer, unless there was some sort of lefty-righty co-closer committee installed, especially in light of Perkins’s back issues.
If the Pirates wanted to go a little outside the box, the Twins may be willing to deal Trevor Plouffe in a trade this offseason. Plouffe’s primary position is 3B with Joe Mauer entrenched at 1B. The issue at hand is uber-prospect Miguel Sano needs to play one of those positions or risk being wasted at DH at age 22. Plouffe’s salary is escalating ($7.7M est via MLB Trade Rumors), but he is under control for 2016 and 2017. Although Plouffe has been the primary 3B for the Twins in recent years, he did play 17 games at 1B for them in 2015. His batting average and on-base percentage are similar to Pedro Alvarez (.245/.308 career marks), but his 22 homers from 2015 wouldn’t be a huge downgrade and he is league-average defensively in his short time at 1B.
In last week’s 2016 payroll and roster article, I allocated $10M to finding a 1B starter, so Plouffe would fit that allocation and still allow a little left over. The Twins address a need in the bullpen and clear a spot in the field for Sano, as well.
Lest you think that I only have Melancon targeted for AL teams (even though NL teams like LAD, NYM, COL, and SD would have varying degrees of interest), here is a NL team that has designs on revamping their bullpen. Arizona believes that with a few tweaks and additions to their pitching staff that they can contend in the NL West in 2016. I happen to disagree, but here we are, so let’s try and get out of this maze together. Arizona sniffed around Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline this past season, so they are definitely in the market. They also have scads of open payroll space next, with only $27M of committed salary and a relatively inexpensive arbitration class, so they do have cash to augment their roster.
The Diamondbacks could offer young reliever Silvino Bracho back in a package for Melancon. Bracho (age-23 in 2016, six years of team control) debuted this past year and continued his strong minor league strikeout rates into his 12 inning stint in the majors (12.41 K/9, 2.92 BB/9). Bracho is smaller at 5-11, which isn’t standard height for the Pirates, but his 93 mph fastball and 82 mph slider could profile into a back-end bullpen role in the future.
Chris Owings had a complete disaster of a season in 2015, which was a 180 degree reversal of his 2014 campaign. Owings was atrocious with the bat (.227/.264/.322, 586 OPS) and rated very poorly with the defensive metrics at both 2B and SS. But in 2014 he was worth 1.8 WAR, thanks to an acceptable line of .261/.300/.406 (706 OPS) and strong defensive metrics at both 2B and SS. This could be a chance for the Pirates to buy low on a statistically-averse front office that may be inclined to give up on the 24-year old Owings and his four years of team control. Owings may not be an ideal starter, but he could be a very solid super-utility man for the Pirates.