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