The Pirates Should Become the Relief Pitching Factory

One of the impressive things about the Pittsburgh Pirates has been their ability to trade quality relievers for other pieces of their team, and yet still manage to put together a strong bullpen. I pointed out how strong their bullpen was today in the 2013 bullpen recap, and that was after trading Joel Hanrahan, Brad Lincoln, and Chris Resop in the last year.

Looking at the 2013 roster, several players were acquired in exchange for relief pitchers.

Travis Snider – Was acquired at the 2012 trade deadline for Brad Lincoln.

Marlon Byrd/John Buck – To get these two, the Pirates traded two prospects, one of which was relief pitching prospect Vic Black.

Josh Harrison – He was part of a deal in 2009 that sent away Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow.

Justin Morneau – Like Byrd, he was acquired for two prospects, with one being reliever Duke Welker.

James McDonald/Andrew Lambo – Both were acquired at the 2010 deadline for Octavio Dotel.

Mark Melancon/Stolmy Pimentel – Both came in the Joel Hanrahan trade last off-season.

Some of these players have been great. Some of these players haven’t been so great. Some of them provided the right boost at the right time. Some didn’t do well in 2013, but did well in previous years. There are also other players in the minors who have been acquired in some of the deals above who haven’t made the majors yet. The important thing here is that the Pirates didn’t lose anything with any of these trades. They didn’t see a decline in their bullpen production. Travis Snider, for example, might not have worked out as expected, but the Pirates didn’t miss Brad Lincoln at all in 2013.

The above isn’t anything extreme. It’s not like the Pirates built their entire team by trading relief pitchers. To expect a team to build all or most of their team through such an avenue would be unreasonable. But as long as the Pirates possess the ability to put together a quality bullpen for a cheap price, they should continue trading relievers.

Furthermore, as long as there are other teams in baseball who over-value relief pitchers, and are willing to over-pay for “proven” relievers, the Pirates should absolutely continue trading relievers.

It would be great to see the Pirates turn into a relief pitching factory. Trade an established reliever for a big return. Give the open position to an un-established reliever with no value. Once that reliever is established and has value, trade him for another big return. Rinse. Repeat.

Jason Grilli has been outstanding for the Pirates in the last two and a half years, but he might bring more value to the team in the future through a trade. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Jason Grilli has been outstanding for the Pirates in the last two and a half years, but he might bring more value to the team in the future through a trade. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

They can start this off-season by dealing from their current bullpen. The key pieces would be Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, who were two of the top relief pitchers in baseball this past season. Out of 135 qualified relievers in the majors, Melancon ranked third and Grilli ranked seventh in xFIP. But those aren’t the stats that teams look at when they’re trading for a “proven” reliever. Instead, they’ll look at the fact that Melancon had the sixth best ERA, and Grilli converted 33 of 35 save opportunities.

I’m not about to say that Melancon and Grilli can’t sustain this. They won’t be as lights out as they were in 2013, but they’ll be strong relievers. If the Pirates traded one, or both, then their new team would be getting a strong relief pitcher. That’s not the point. The point is that the Pirates could find another quality reliever to replace one, or both pitchers, all while getting a big return by dealing them away. It’s almost as if they’re trading nothing away in the process.

The track record of success isn’t just in 2013. Take a look at some of the best relief pitching moves from the last few years.

Mark Melancon for Joel Hanrahan

Jeanmar Gomez for Quincy Latimore

Vin Mazzaro for Luis Santos and Luis Rico

Jason Grilli as a mid-season free agent.

Chris Resop claimed off of waivers.

Jose Veras as a minor league free agent.

D.J. Carrasco as a minor league free agent.

Javier Lopez as a minor league free agent.

Octavio Dotel as an “unproven” closer.

Chan Ho Park claimed off of waivers.

Evan Meek in the Rule 5 draft.

Joel Hanrahan in a swap for Sean Burnett as the second part of a Lastings Milledge/Nyjer Morgan trade.

Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, and Daniel McCutchen as converted minor league starters.

All of the above players had good seasons with the Pirates. None of them really cost anything. You might make an exception for the two Hanrahan trades. The trade to get Hanrahan was more about Milledge, and Hanrahan was seen as the fourth best player in the deal at the time. The trade to get Melancon sent a valuable asset, but the Pirates ended up getting four years of Melancon, plus Pimentel, Jerry Sands, and Ivan De Jesus, for Hanrahan.

This is a pretty long track record of successful relief pitching acquisitions. There’s no reason to think that the Pirates can’t do it again. Earlier in the week I proposed trading Francisco Liriano to get a massive return, then replacing Liriano with the next Liriano. There is some risk involved there, specifically that the Pirates’ system isn’t guaranteed to turn every pitcher around. The risk in trading relievers and replacing them with other quality relievers is much smaller. Nothing is guaranteed, but if the Pirates want a safe method to trade assets, get a big return, and see no loss to their major league team, then the best way is to trade relievers.

Last year when this happened, the overall reaction was poor, with many clinging to the “proven reliever” line of thinking. Hopefully if the same thing happens again this off-season, there will be more people who will remember the past, remember how Grilli and Melancon were acquired so cheaply and didn’t always look like top relievers, and remember the track record the Pirates have for landing those low-cost relievers.

Tim Williams

Author: 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 AccuScore.com, 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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  • http://www.facebook.com/benjaminmcferren Benjamin McFerren

    I’m for it. In fact I think we could bring back Hammer or Farnsworth on a minor league deal and get the same value that Melancon could bring

    • buster09

      Farnsworth particularly. Hanrahan,I would think with the 2 injuries he had,it will be a hard road to recovery.

  • piraddict

    I agree that the Pirates system and coaches are a real strength that can be expected to continue to revive players careers. But Tim, the one thing that your very logical analysis overlooks is that fans root for players and the team, nobody else. No one leaves PNC after a game talking about how good a job Neil Huntington, or Clint Hurdle or Bob Nutting, did that night. Management and the coaches can be the villains if they screw up. But it’s the players that fans attribute success to emotionally. And that emotional involvement leads to loyalty which leads to bucs for the Bucs. The Pirates know this and invest considerable sums in the marketing of “Grilled Cheese” and Melancon’s Shark Tank , etc. Fans aren’t called fans (short for fanatics) for nothing. The constant churning of players that your method calls for requires a certain emotional detachment from the players that might lead to a better performing team, but many fans will find it wearing. I am sure there was a certain satisfaction for Yankee fans to see Mariano Rivera enter the 9th year after year. I think the Pirates should execute your system until they find “keepers”, and then keep them for as long as they can (or more to the point, as long as budget constraints permit), rather than be a perpetual 4A minor league factory for the rest of the league.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      The same argument was used last year when they traded Hanrahan. What we learned this year is that fans will cheer a winning team. No one is complaining about the Hanrahan deal now. These types of deals lead to a better team, and that’s how you become a winner. There would definitely be some backlash if they traded Melancon and Grilli. But the people who complain would be the same people cheering the next relievers.

      The Pirates can’t make moves based on the emotional attachment of the fans. If they did, they would have been paying an injured Joel Hanrahan $7 M this year and Mark Melancon wouldn’t be a part of the team.

      • piraddict

        Well, I see this could wax into a philosophical discussion. A simple excursion to Bing.com to check on 2013 MLB Home Attendance figures shows that the Tampa Bay Rays ranked dead last, 30 of 30, in Home Attendance this year. (I think the Pirates ranked 19th, didn’t write it down). So even though the Rays system has resulted in a significant streak of winning seasons they have utterly failed to connect with their potential fan base. Why is that? I suppose you might argue that people in Tampa Bay are just dorks or old geezers who just don’t get baseball. I am not inclined to accept that. I think it more likely that the Rays approach to building a team doesn’t inspire fan loyalty. Compare this to the Cardinals, whose following is immense and loyal. From looking at the ability to generate fan loyalty, and resulting revenue alone the uninformed would choose the Cardinals system versus the Rays system hands down.

        If you stand back and ask, “why does baseball exist?”, who would answer “to win games!”. Baseball exists to satisfy the emotional needs of fans. It provides a melodrama of conflict where our heroes sally forth and do combat on our behalf, and hopefully bring home a victory, while in a truly enjoyable climate. And for fans to commit their finances to a team there needs to be an emotional connection.

        A successful baseball franchise isn’t just about winning games. Your favorite team the Rays proves that. For while they may be winning games, they are failing as a business, and as a result there may become a time when Tampa Bay no longer has a MLB team.

        Any business that ignores their customers needs is doomed to fail, regardless of how many “games” they win.

        • MaineBucs

          Hmmnnn. The Cardinals and fan loyalty.

          While the Cardinals have had the luxury of a much larger budget than the Pirates or the Rays over the past decade, meaning that they have had the resources to hang onto players that they value, I believe one of the best traits of the Cardinals is that they too are willing to move on from a fan favorite or a player who has performed well for them.

          Pujhols was the face of the Cardinals’ franchise for many years, but when he asked for a monster deal, they let him walk and they used some of the monies to bring in a solid (but not as spectacular) veteran like Beltran. Cardinal fans loved Pujhols, but they quickly warmed to the newcomer, Beltran, because he helped the team to win.

          The Cardinals moved on from one of their better pitchers — if you use win/lose record as a measuring stick – in Lohse, because they knew Lohse cost too much for what he could deliver. Fortunately for Cardinal fans, the team had other pitchers which helped them to quickly forget all about Lohse.

          The Cards, unlike the Rays, have been able to bring in significant outside talent to help them win. Beltran, Holiday and Furcal are recent examples, and going back further, McGuire.

          If I look at the current Cardinal team, I believe only Molina and Carpenter (the pitcher, not the second baseman) would qualify as real Cardinal veterans. I also credit the Cardinals for realizing what they had in Molina and paying the tab to keep him. The Cards have done well to build a system that provides them reasonable, if not great, replacement talent that is ready to contribute at the major league level when one of their former players is becoming a bit too expensive or is reaching the replacement stage.

          And with respect to the Rays, I note that they have kept the face of their franchise, Longoria, but unfortunately, Rays fans do not seem to fully appreciate the jewel of a team and franchise that they have. I don’t agree with all of their decisions — they should have added Bay — but, their team is regularly in the hunt, which is where I hope the Pirates soon will be.

          Continuing, with respect to Tim’s main point, yes, the Pirates should be willing to gamble with relievers, even if there is a year in which they are not as successful in the past as churning out an effective pen. If you want further proof, simply look at the Cardinals this year. They changed closers during the season, and they have been using a youngster like Martinez to pitch in big situations through-out the playoffs and now in the series.

          I suggested the other day that the Pirates should look at trading Melancon this off-season, perhaps as part of a package deal, because of his success this past season and because some teams are really looking to add talent to their bullpen. I am not truly to push either Liriano or Melancon out of town, but perhaps a package of these two and a prospect in the 10 – 15 range of the system could help to land young talent that would soon contribute at the major league level and help sustain the winning in Pittsburgh.

          • piraddict

            The Cards made a monster offer to retain Pujols, but it wasn’t monstrous enough compared to the Angels. Given Pujols fall off in production, and the relative good production they have gotten out of 1B I am sure that the Cards are thrilled that they lost out on the deal. But why did the Cards make such an offer in the first place? The respect for the thoughts of their fans no doubt played a role in that. They could say that they made a good faith effort to keep their icon, it just wasn’t enough.

    • stickyweb

      addict, interesting comment but I mostly disagree. Starting with the last first. “rather than be a perpetual 4A minor league factory for the rest of the league.” I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this since I think it could be read 2 ways: 1) the Bucs are trading away all of their good players, making them a AAAA team – an obviously wrong statement since the team has improved for 3 years running, peaking with the playoffs this year, while making all of the trades Tim details, or 2) they are trading away AAAA talent, and since they’re getting mostly quality major leaguers, why not keep doing it? Unless you have some rookie cards of that AAAA talent, who cares?

      Yes, the Grilled Cheese and the Shark Tank are nice novelties for the fans, but winning trumps all. The Hammer wasn’t quite as contagious last year because the team stopped winning. As far as churning players, it’s not like Tim’s talking about doing this with 5 or 6 players a year. If you do this with the 1 or 2 players each year that have maximized they’re value, are on the verge of getting too expensive, and will bring the most value back in a trade, then the fans will hardly notice. McCutchen and Cole are obviously untouchable for the foreseeable future, but if the right baseball deal is available for anyone else, they should pull the trigger. I assume from your moniker that you’re a fan…did you miss Hanrahan terribly this year?

      • piraddict

        Sticky, I think the point of Tim’s article is that the Pirates have had terrific recent success recently trading out of and into their bullpen. And as a result this should become an engine of the Pirates future success in obtaining additional quality players. My perhaps clumsy reply was trying to make the point that setting a long term goal of having the Pirates bullpen be essentially a 4A (like a triple A team while in the Major Leagues) source of talent for the rest of the league runs counter to what I believe should be a goal of building team loyalty among the fans. I don’t agree that “winning trumps all”. All other things being equal winning is great, and greatly to be preferred. But if the team wins and nobody cares (ala the Rays) what long term future does the team have?

        I favor trading away good players before the last year of control if you don’t want to sign them or they won’t commit to a long term deal regardless of how much emotional pain there might be. There is the reality of the Pirates small market budget. (But heh, even the Yankees hesitated to sign Martin for budget purposes). I just advocate balance in all things, trading baseball players included.

        I agree with your second paragraph wholeheartedly. The Hanrahan question isn’t really fair as I didn’t really like him in the first place (as a player). Too little command to suit me even with the wicked slider as an out pitch, I was glad they didn’t commit to him.

    • SteveW

      Yankee fans definitely have satisfaction seeing Mariano come in to close year after year. However he is one-of-a-kind. The other 29 MLB teams churn closers constantly since the great majority either get hurt or lose their effectiveness within a few years. On average, at least 40% of MLB clubs change closers between opening day and the end of the same season. And very few teams have the same closer for more than three years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    As long as teams over value closers, there will always be a market for the Grilli’s et al of the world. And, if we can turn that over valuing into valuable pieces, then do it!

  • Andrew

    Two questions

    1)How much do teams still overpay for relievers, I thought the Papelbon contract the Phillis made was widely mocked?

    2)How crucial is Jim Benedict to this process and will it change if he is hired elsewhere?

  • https://profiles.google.com/103770536589125998209 Michael Jackson

    Tim, I would be more amenable to trading Grilli or Melancon if we hadn’t just traded Duke Welker and Victor Black.

    I can only see doing this at the trading deadline if we are out of contention.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      They’ve traded relievers in the past with fewer internal options than they’ve had now. Last year they traded Hanrahan and Black/Welker weren’t seen as immediate options to help in the majors. I don’t know why this year would be different.

      • https://profiles.google.com/103770536589125998209 Michael Jackson

        Because Hanrahan was wild and would have been a free agent after this year. Also, they did get Melancon in return.

        Plus we had Grilli and he was more effective than Hanrahan.

        They also tried to sign Uehara and lost out.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

          When did they try to sign Uehara?

          • https://profiles.google.com/103770536589125998209 Michael Jackson

            They tried to trade for him in 2011 when he was with Baltimore.

            http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2011/07/pirates-focused-on-relief-help.html

            I am trying to find articles from his courtship as a free agent after 2012

            • https://profiles.google.com/103770536589125998209 Michael Jackson

              I can’t find anything.

              The chances were remote anyway with the Rangers and Red Sox being the main suitors and the Pirates concentrating on Grilli.

        • Kevin_Young

          I do somewhat agree with the king of pop here. I love trading from the bullpen, I think it’s a no-brainer move for smart teams, but the more internal options we ship out the less we’ll be able to do it. It’s not that I’d mind trading them still, but the odds of it happening aren’t very good.

  • jon6er

    I feel like I’m missing something with Frankie because Tim and a couple others want to deal him. Is it a contract thing or just thinking he can’t duplicate.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      For me it’s that he is a good pitcher and would get a huge return. Plus, the Pirates have shown a good ability to find reclamation projects like Liriano and Burnett. So they could trade him for a huge return, then replace him with the next Liriano/Burnett.

  • CalipariFan506

    Andrew,

    The Broxton, Affeldt and League contracts still show the Papelbon deal doesn’t represent a league wide reluctance to sign relievers to outrageous deals.

    • Andrew

      Thanks I forgot about the Broxton deal, and was unaware of Affeldt deal, (Has the Giant’s front office bought into xFIP?) I assume the concept of overpaying still exist just the magnitude has lessened.

  • http://hiddenvigorish.com steelpro

    I agree with the philosophy, though there is danger in taking it too far. I think you need some continuity at the back end of the pen. I’d have no problem moving Melancon, Grilli, or even Watson this offseason. But only one of them. Part of the reason the plan has worked so well is they have only been plugging in one or two new pieces. Even when they decided to move Hanrahan they made it a point to retain Grilli first.

  • SportOMania

    In a sterile world I’d move Grilli in a heartbeat if the return was right. In fact he would be the one I’d try to cash in for a need. He is aging and lost velocity plus he had an arm injury last year. However, Grilli turned down more money to remain with the Bucs because his preference was to remain in Pittsburgh. If Grilli is moved before the season started this could make it more difficult to get other free agents to sign at discounted prices to remain with the team.

    Any other reliever I’d love to see them move to a team in desperate need of bullpen help if they are willing to overpay. The Tigers, Yankees and Phillies quickly come to mind. I believe I read somewhere the Astros were going to make the Bullpen an offseason priority.

    • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

      Grilli isn’t going to get a decent return. He’s what, 36/37? Watson probably would fetch something,- but I wouldn’t be inclined to move him until Wilson proves he’s as capable – and I’m not there. I’d be open to moving Melancon or anyone else, unless Gomar needs to go back into the rotation.