First Pitch: Hanrahan a Recent Example of Why You Sell High on Relievers

Joel Hanrahan has been removed as the Red Sox closer.

Joel Hanrahan has been removed as the Red Sox closer.

Back when the Joel Hanrahan trade happened, there were a lot of complaints that the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t get enough in return and should have held on to Hanrahan until the trade deadline to get a better return.

Today, after a rough start with Boston, and after a trip to the disabled list with hamstring problems, Hanrahan was activated. Only he wasn’t activated as the closer. Instead, Andrew Bailey remained in the role.

It’s impossible to say whether the same events would have happened with the Pirates. However, this is a reminder of how volatile the value of relievers can be, and why the Pirates were smart to deal Hanrahan when they did. Of course you can’t say that without also noting that they would have been smarter to deal Hanrahan much earlier at a higher value. They couldn’t do that during the 2012 season, since they were in contention. It was debatable whether they were actually contenders in 2011, but it would have been hard to deal Hanrahan that summer. The perfect time to deal him would have been the 2011-12 off-season.

That said, the return is looking good so far. Mark Melancon has been lights out in the back of the bullpen. The best part is that the Pirates have him under control for three more seasons beyond 2013. Stolmy Pimentel has been dominating Double-A hitters, and now has an 0.30 ERA in 30.1 innings this season. Ivan De Jesus is hitting for a .351/.400/.486 line in a very limited 37 at-bats. His upside remains a backup infielder in the majors. The only disappointing result so far has been Jerry Sands, who is hitting for a .145/.235/.171 line in 76 at-bats.

Getting four years of Melancon for Hanrahan is looking to be totally worth it, and that would be true even if Hanrahan was pitching well. If Pimentel continues this and becomes a major league pitcher, that would make the deal look like a steal, even without De Jesus or Sands contributing in the majors.

But the lesson here is trading relievers at their highest value. Boston is an example of why this is a valuable approach to take. In the last two years they’ve been on the other side of a lot of those deals, trading for relievers when their values are high. They traded Josh Reddick to get Andrew Bailey, who was supposed to fix their closer issues. They traded Jed Lowrie for Mark Melancon to fix their eighth inning problems. Then they traded Melancon one year later at a much lower value to get Hanrahan, all because Bailey didn’t cut it as a closer. Now Hanrahan isn’t working out, and Bailey is back in. At this rate they’ll be trading Xander Bogaerts to the Pirates this off-season just to get Melancon back.

The Pirates haven’t been perfect with their bullpen trades. They lost Matt Capps at his lowest value by non-tendering him. They got a good return for Hanrahan, but probably could have had a better return if they dealt him a year earlier. At the same time they added Hanrahan at a low value. They signed Octavio Dotel and traded him for James McDonald, which helped make up for the Capps move. They dealt Brad Lincoln for Travis Snider, who is looking to have much more value this year than Lincoln at his best in the bullpen. And it looks like they’ve bought low on another late inning reliever with Mark Melancon.

This is a process that doesn’t come with comfort. A lot of people who are praising the bullpen performance right now were talking about how horrible the bullpen was over the off-season, all because the bullpen didn’t have “proven relievers”. And there will come a time where Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon have high values, with unproven relievers like Bryan Morris, Vic Black, and Duke Welker behind them. At that point, the Pirates would be smart to deal Grilli and/or Melancon and once again go with the unproven, but talented relievers. And at that point there will be people who will be against the idea of dealing an establish reliever, even though most of those established relievers once had low values themselves.

That’s the most important rule with relievers. Their values are extremely volatile. You trade them when they have value, because that value can disappear in no time. Just look at Hanrahan. Over the off-season the Red Sox traded four players for him and gave him $7 M. Less than a month into the season and he was already out of the closer’s role, and his value was killed. And it’s not like you can’t just go find someone in Triple-A and turn him into one of the best closers in the league.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5.

**Be sure to check out the new podcast: P3 Episode 1: The Bullpen, Snider, and a Nick Kingham Interview. I recorded an interview with Robby Rowland today for Episode 2 on Friday.


**Prospect Notebook: Pirates Have a Lot of Pitching Depth in Indianapolis.

**Zack Von Rosenberg to the DL, Zack Dodson Set to Return This Weekend.

**Adalberto Santos Activated off the Altoona DL.

**Phil Irwin Returns to Indianapolis, Ready to Start.

**Prospect Watch: Liriano Goes Six Strong Innings, Presley Homers.

**Curve shutout by Aeros as bats go quiet.

**Minor League Schedule: 5/1/13.

**Mike Newman has a report on Stetson Allie over at FanGraphs.


**Francisco Liriano Continues to Look Good in Latest Rehab Start.

**Pirates DFA Jonathan Sanchez, Recall Bryan Morris.

**The 40-Man Payroll Projection has been updated with today’s moves.

**Jose Contreras Set to Join the Pirates on Friday.

**Pirates Can’t Find a Way to Win in Milwaukee; Pitchers Not Doing Themselves Favors.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • NorCal Buc

    There REALY was NO good time to trade Hanrahan, as you stated in the article. This team NEEDED to make the run with their closer. Lincoln was an extra piece in the pen, he was marketable.

    THIS year is different, of course. Behind Melancon, we have a stable of potential set-up pitchers. Were someone to offer the Bucs another version of Jed Lowrie for Grilli, we’d have to giver a serious listen.

    • wkkortas

      I don’t agree with the notion that there was no good time to trade Hanrahan. If anyone has shown that you can build a good bullpen on the cheap, it’s the Pirates. Look at their recent closers; Hanrahan was a throw-in in a trade with the Nats, and Grilli could have been picked up by anyone at all due to his contact with the Phils. If someone wants to wildly overpay for a closer, you make the deal, no ifs ands or buts.

  • Lee Young

    Couldn’t agree more….I used to play in APBA Baseball draft leagues in the 80s and 90s and was surprised then at how volatile relievers were. Very few were consistently good year after year.

  • IC Bob

    I am not ready to pronounce the Bucs the winner in that trade. Lets see how the season plays out. Hanny got hurt so he is out of the closers role. In 1 week he could be back in and by the end of the year he could have 40-50 saves. I am intrigued by how well Stolmy is pitching. I didn’t expect that so if that continues then I will say yes the Bucs did get the best of the deal.

    • smurph

      Seriously, bob? Sure it is still early, and I didn’t like the trade at first because I had not heard of these guys except Jerry Sands. There is a chance Stolmy could be a major league starter, Melancon has been excellent, and Hanrahan was going to be a FA after 2013. A win for NH.

      • IC Bob

        I don’t like to make judgements on one month of work. If we did that then we would not have Melencon because he had the worst month of April in Boston history. I still believe Hanrahan is a heck of a pitcher. I need to see more then a dozen innings from our guy to say this was a steal.

    • maguro

      I would be willing to bet you a case of Iron City that Hanrahan does not get 40 saves this year.

  • Ron Zorn

    This trade was a win from the beginning. Just too many naysayers chiming in to see through “Bob Nutting won’t pay anybody” fog. Melancon was a proven reliever who had one bad half a season, in the toughest division in baseball that also included the DH. I would have taken Hanrahan for Melancon straight up just for the fact that we had Hanrahan for one year and Melacon for four. Everyone else was a bonus! From a strictly dollars perspective, budgetarily, this gave us the ability to sign either Loriano, or with a bit extra money, Russell Martin. From that perspective, trade looks even better.

    Once you remove the emotion, and add the additiona available dollars, which were in fact utilized, this is way beyond a good deal. And I loved Hanrahan!

  • emjayinTN

    Fatt Capps was pitiful and there were no tears shed when he left, regardless of the circumstance. He was due a hefty raise as I recall and was not worth what the Pirates were already paying him. He should get on his knees and thank God that the Pirates gave him the wake-up call he needed by cutting him. Armed with a better conditioning program and the desire to make the Pirates look bad, he did well in Minnesota. However, I think we have had O Do Tell, Hanrahan, and now Grilli since he left, so I can live without getting anything for him – just getting rid of his salary would have been enough for me. BTW, think the Cubs are proud of their $52 mil SP, Edwin Jackson? An $8 mil bonus and an $11 mil/year contract for 4 years and he is 0-4, 6.27 ERA. What do you think the Pirates should do with AJ for 2014. He came to the Pirates as a “broken” SP, but nobody bothered to tell AJ, and as a 36 year old he is still going strong. He is making $16 mil – would he consider less as a 37 year old?

  • polevaultking

    Don’t forget about Mike Gonzalez for Adam LaRoche, that trade was a win for the Pirates.

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