First Pitch: Joel Hanrahan’s Future With the Pirates
The MLB Winter Meetings wrapped up today with a nice summary of how the entire meetings went. The Pirates didn’t take anyone in the Rule 5 draft, sent Kyle Kaminska to the Red Sox to complete the Zach Stewart trade, and one of the biggest stories in baseball was whether Jason Grilli had signed.
I like Jason Grilli. I think he’s a great pitcher. But when one of the biggest topics on the final day is where a relief pitcher will end up, that’s a sign of a slow week. It was a slow week. I saw someone mention that only two teams took the stage this week — the Mets to talk about David Wright’s deal, and the Yankees to talk about Alex Rodriguez’s injury. The top free agents — Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, and more — are still unsigned. The rumored three or four team deal involving Justin Upton seems like it’s more about the novelty of having a three or four team deal. This has to be one of the slowest winter meetings I can remember. And at the end of it, Jason Grilli was the highlight.
We still don’t know where Grilli will end up. We heard he was down to four teams, with a 10:00 AM deadline for one of those teams to up their offer to three years. We heard he would likely be returning to the Pirates if no one increased their number of years. After 10:00 AM EST passed, the countdown reset to central time to account for Nashville. Then 10:00 AM CST passed. Around noon we heard a report saying Grilli had signed with the Pirates, which made sense based on the earlier reports. Then another report, followed quickly by a denial by Grilli. Then another report, again followed by a denial by Grilli. Then hours of silence.
The Pirates seem to be the favorites in the Grilli sweepstakes, based on the rumors this morning. Of course, based on the results of the other rumors, I don’t know what we can believe. What I do know is that if the Pirates sign Grilli, they’ll have an interesting situation in the back of their bullpen. Grilli is expected to eventually receive a two-year deal, and my guess is that the amount will at least be for $3.5 M per year, if not more. Joel Hanrahan is in his final year of arbitration, projected to make around $7 M. That would give the Pirates at least $10.5 M on two relievers.
I’d be very surprised if they paid that. That’s 15% of a $70 M payroll on two relievers. If you’ve read this site for any amount of time, you know my feeling on relievers. They’re easily replaced, and you shouldn’t spend big dollars on the bullpen. Hanrahan and Grilli are proof. The Pirates bought low on Hanrahan. He was included in the Nyjer Morgan/Lastings Milledge swap, being exchanged for Sean Burnett. That part of the trade was meant to tip the scales in Washington’s favor. In the end, Hanrahan was the best player from that deal for either team. Grilli also came cheap. He was in Triple-A with Philadelphia in July 2011. Any team that wanted him could just offer him a major league deal. The Phillies would have to match it, or release him and let him sign with the other team. The Pirates came along with that deal, the Phillies let him go, and Grilli turned in to one of the best relievers in the game last year.
The Pirates have had success like this with other players. Tony Watson and Jared Hughes both looked like they would max out in Double-A as starters. They both moved to the bullpen and have been two of the most reliable middle relievers for the Pirates. Chris Resop was taken on waivers, and put up good numbers for two and a half years. Chris Leroux was injured last year, but in his time with the Pirates has a 3.95 ERA in 41 innings, with a 40:12 K/BB ratio. He was another waiver claim.
If there’s one area where Neal Huntington has a strong track record, it’s building a bullpen. For that reason, it wouldn’t make sense to spend 15% of the payroll on relievers. That’s especially the case when Grilli could serve as a short-term closer, and Hanrahan could be dealt to provide an upgrade in another area. As an example, the Pirates could try to get a starting pitcher, slotting in a strong option behind A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and James McDonald. Currently they have Jeff Locke (struggled so far in the majors), Kyle McPherson (limited time in the majors, multiple shoulder injuries in 2012), Vin Mazzaro (poor results in the majors), Zach Stewart (SEE: Mazzaro), and Andy Oliver (SEE: Mazzaro, Stewart). That’s some good depth, and I’m guessing 1-2 of those guys could step up if the Pirates didn’t add anyone else. It would be better if the Pirates had all of those guys going for the final rotation spot, and serving as rotation depth, since the team will probably need 8-9 starters throughout the season. The Pirates could try to get one of the recently non-tendered pitchers, but they’d have a better chance at getting a quality arm by dealing Hanrahan.
When it comes to replacing Hanrahan, the Pirates can just do what they do best. They’ve got several players who could step up as sleeper bullpen options. Bryan Morris leads the pack. He’s out of options, and has the stuff to eventually close. If they don’t make the rotation, Mazzaro, Stewart, and Oliver could be options. Chad Beck and Rick Vandenhurk both have great arms, but neither player has been able to use their stuff to produce results in the majors. Perhaps they’re candidates to be the next Resop or Leroux. In Triple-A there’s Justin Wilson, Duke Welker, Vic Black, and Hunter Strickland, with the last two needing some time in the minors before they make the jump to the majors.
The Pirates don’t need much. If they deal Hanrahan and move Grilli to the closer role, they’d still have Watson, Hughes, and presumably Morris and Leroux as locks for the bullpen (both of those guys are out of options). That would leave two more spots for all of the above players, not to mention the minor league free agents and any January/February bullpen signings. It’s not a comfortable situation, but it is a situation where the Pirates have plenty of depth, plenty of options, and previous success with that combination. And really, if they trade Hanrahan, we’re only talking about one extra bullpen spot they’d have to fill.
There’s no guarantee that they will trade Hanrahan if they sign Grilli. It just makes sense. Hanrahan has been mentioned as being on the market. The Pirates haven’t typically spent a lot of money on non-closers. And it would make sense for the team to try and get someone who could provide more value than a strong reliever. If Grilli signs with the Pirates, I think that could mark the end for Hanrahan. We just have to wait for Grilli to actually sign.
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