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.
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.