First Pitch: Joel Hanrahan’s Trade Value and Jason Grilli’s Contract

Last Thursday I wrote about Joel Hanrahan’s future with the team if the Pirates were to sign Jason Grilli. The Pirates signed Grilli today to a two-year, $6.75 M deal. Hanrahan is projected to make about $7 M in arbitration, which means the Pirates would be spending a little over $10 M on two relievers if they kept Hanrahan around.

I’ve said most of the off-season that I think Hanrahan will be dealt. Part of that is because I don’t think the Pirates will spend that much money on a closer. The Pirates would be giving Hanrahan 10% of their payroll at $70 M. No team should be paying that big of a percentage of their payroll for a closer. With all of the rumors we’ve heard about Hanrahan over the last few weeks, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the closer is traded.

The Pirates lost a lot of trade value with Hanrahan by not trading him a year or two ago. The best time to deal him would have been at the 2011 trade deadline. That would have been difficult to pull off from a PR standpoint. The team was technically in contention, even though they weren’t really strong contenders. As luck would have it, their collapse started the day after the trade deadline.

It was a similar situation in 2012. They couldn’t deal Hanrahan because they were contenders. This time they were stronger contenders, rather than being at the top of a struggling division in 2011. In either season the Pirates had a valid reason for keeping Hanrahan. The best time to deal him would have been last off-season, when closers were fetching pretty big returns. His value isn’t going to be high this off-season with a high salary and one year of control remaining.

Judging Hanrahan’s trade value is difficult. There are several numbers you could use. His 2011 FanGraphs WAR was 2.0, which would give him about $3 M in value. His 2012 FanGraphs WAR was -0.4, which would give him no value. His Baseball Reference WAR was 2.3 and 1.1 in each year. The main difference between the two is that Baseball Reference factors in what a pitcher actually did, while FanGraphs factors in advanced metrics, designed to give the real skill level of the pitcher without the help of external factors. Both were in agreement in 2011, and there was a difference in 2012.

If you went with the 2011 numbers, Hanrahan would be worth $3 M, which wouldn’t even be a Grade B hitting prospect. If you went the mid-point between the two years and went with a 1.5 WAR, Hanrahan would have a $0.5 M value, which would be a Grade C prospect. Both of those values are based on $5 M per win.

These values are baseline values. It’s always possible that a team could pay more based on the market, desperation, additional bidders, or any other factors. At the same time, the values could be lower if there aren’t a lot of teams interested, or if there are a lot of options. Considering some of the deals being handed out this off-season, I don’t think the value for Hanrahan will be low. He’ll have a lower salary than the free agent options, which should keep his value at least at the baseline.

We heard rumors a few weeks ago about the Dodgers and Pirates discussing a Hanrahan for Chris Capuano swap. That type of move seems the most realistic. Both players have similar values, both are due about $7 M, and both will be with their new team for one more year. Capuano has a mutual option in 2014 at $8 M, and I don’t see him exercising his side with all of the multi-year deals going around this off-season. That wouldn’t give the Pirates much long-term value (they might have a better chance at a compensation pick with Capuano, rather than Hanrahan), but it would make them better in 2013. Capuano is a lefty who gets a lot of strikeouts and has a decent ground ball rate. That’s a good fit for PNC Park. Adding Capuano behind A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and James McDonald would provide more value than having Hanrahan and Grilli in the late innings.

There’s also the question of whether Grilli can close, and whether his deal makes sense for the Pirates. He’s 36-years-old, which raises some concern since he’s getting a two-year deal at $6.75 M total. I don’t think the deal looks bad if he’s closing. Over the last two years with the Pirates, Grilli has a 2.76 ERA in 91.1 innings, with a 12.5 K/9 and a 3.6 BB/9 ratio. That’s closer stuff, and nothing suggests Grilli will suddenly decline. The deal reminds me of the Octavio Dotel deal in 2010. Dotel signed at the age of 36 to a one year, $3.5 M deal with an option. He didn’t have the strikeout rates that Grilli had, and his walk rates were worse heading into that season.

Grilli looks like he’d be a better option, but he only makes sense if he’ll eventually be the closer. The situation is similar to the situation with Dotel. The Pirates had Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek in the bullpen, and used them as set-up guys, signing Dotel to keep the pressure off the younger relievers. In 2013 the Pirates would have guys like Bryan Morris, Jared Hughes, and Chris Leroux who could get comfortable in the middle and late innings with Grilli closing. Morris would be my favorite for the eventual closer role, and for the immediate set-up job.

The Pirates probably won’t have a shot at a long-term piece in a Hanrahan deal, but they could improve the 2013 team. Grilli’s deal makes more sense if he’s the closer, rather than an expensive set-up man. The situation will give us something to keep an eye on in the upcoming weeks. I’d still be surprised if Hanrahan is on the team heading into Spring Training.

Links and Notes

**Pre-order your copy of the 2013 Prospect Guide, which is expected to be released later this week.

**Jason Grilli Returns to Pirates on a Two Year Deal.

**Baseball Prospectus Releases Their Pirates Top 10 Prospects.

**Sam Kennelly: Pirates Newest Shortstop From Down Under.

**Winter Leagues Recap: Notes on Starling Marte.

  • My comment was agreeing with Tim and the first post on this subject

  • What are the odds that the Bucs’ get no takers and just cut him ? Is that possible?

  • Do you believe the Hanrahan for Porcello rumor? I would think a 23 year old pitcher with 3 more years of control would work out quite nicely for the Bucs. If the Tigers re-sign Anibal Sanchez, could this happen?

    • That seems to be more of an idea than a rumor. Seems like a connect-the-dots situation. I haven’t actually seen a report saying the two sides have discussed this.

  • I agree with Tim. Trading Hanrahan before the season starts is selling low.

    • That’s not what I’m saying. His value will only go lower if they trade him during the season.

      • I disagree, how well or how poor Hanrahan pitches will determine his value during the season, also how well other closers are doing during the season will have an impact on Hanrahan’s value, remember there is a team known as the Dodgers that are expecting to win a world series this coming year and money is no object to them.
        Trading Hanrahan now will net them very little IMO and when that happens the Pirates can count on a PR nightmare, at this point in time IMO the Pirates can’t win in any deal for Hanrahan.

  • IMO, Hanrahan is not worth 7mil and that is where the problem is. Do the Pirates keep him and overpay for him? or do they trade him for someone of equal or lessor value? I agree with Tim that the cat is out of the bag and Hanrahan should have been moved at the very latest last year at some point. I also agree that the media and the fans would have gone nuts if they would have moved him, they would surely have connected him moving with the collapse, sadly the media can rile up the fans quicker than you can snap your fingers.
    IMO, Hanrahan was declining last year, I do not expect him to be a shut down closer this year, but relief pitchers are strange, they can look and perform like they are done and the next thing you know they are pitching well again, I think in Hanrahans case his fastball has to return to where it was when he was dominating.

  • This front office’s modus operandi is to deal a vet for a young guy with upside. Guys like Tabata, Snyder, McDonald, McHenry and the many relievers. Unlikely he is dealt for a one-year contract. Therefore, Hanny is likely to be dealt for a young pitcher who is MLB ready but untested, and can immediately slip into the rotation. A PERFECT fit would be starting pitcher Jake Arrieta of the Orioles.

  • Is WAR value really legitimate for closers?

    It seems to me that lots of closers have salaries higher than their WAR.

  • Inconsistent use of WAR value. If 1.0 WAR is worth 1.0 WAR, then it doesn’t matter if Grilli is a closer or not. It seems to matter to you, just like Hanrahan being a closer will matter to other teams.

    Hanrahan is worth more than 3M because he’s a proven closer with 76 saves and only 8 blown saves over the past two years. He’s a high K% guy coming off a year with a 2.72 ERA.

    I love the WAR Value tool, but I don’t think it works well here. As Paplebon proved last year, people overvalue “closer mentality.”

    • I’m not sure what you’re referring to with the inconsistent use of WAR. Also, I’ve never been a guy who felt pitching in the 9th inning required a special skill or attitude.

      I think other teams could overvalue the “closer mentality”, which is why I would expect Hanrahan’s value to be closer to the 2011 numbers, rather than the 2012 numbers.

      • “I don’t think the deal looks bad IF he’s closing” indicated that you put higher value on production in the 9th versus the 8th. There is an argument for that, but I was pointing out that other teams would feel that way.
        You didn’t make the point in the article that other teams would overvalue the “closer mentality,” which could raise Hanrahan’s trade value past his WAR, so I wanted to point it out.
        p.s. Your proper use of the WAR Value tool is one of the best parts about this website.

        • That was in reference to the price. I don’t think the Pirates should pay that much for a set-up man. Signing Grilli for 2/$6.75 as a closer looks better than spending that money for a set-up man.

  • I was going to basically ask the same question. Would the trade value go up if they stayed with Hanrahan and tried to trade him during the season? Definitely would be a gamble. If he would start the season with a couple blown saves or worse I would assume potential buyers would use that against Huntington. But if all your going to get anyway is one year of Capuano the risk might be worth the reward.

  • Tim

    Could you see a team, like the Tigers, perhaps overpay for Joel’s services? Or could you see the Pirates holding on to Joel until the deadline when strong relief arms always seem to be in high demand?

    • Hanrahan’s value will be strongest over the off-season. Teams will be trading for a full season. At the deadline they’re only trading for two months, which means he will get less value. Also, if there’s any chance of Hanrahan fetching a comp pick, a team has to have him under control for the full season.