The 2012-13 off-season was pretty rough for Pirates fans. The team was coming off one of the worst second-half collapses in baseball history. That combined with anger over a Navy SEALs workout routine in the minors that seemed controversial at the time, but would probably seem somewhat normal in today’s Crossfit era. There were people calling for Neal Huntington to be fired, and questions about whether the Pirates could ever win again.
That all carried over to the off-season, where the Pirates made some controversial moves. They added Russell Martin before the league had started to fully appreciate defensive value. They added Francisco Liriano before Pirates fans had really started appreciating the magic of Ray Searage. And they traded Joel Hanrahan for Mark Melancon at a time when no one really had a chance to appreciate Neal Huntington’s ability to find cheap, productive relievers.
Wait, that last part wasn’t right.
It’s true that there were questions about Martin, before his defense was really appreciated around the league. And when Liriano was signed, the biggest reclamation success story was A.J. Burnett, with the view that Liriano could never have the same results. But you could expect the Pirates to get good results from the Hanrahan/Melancon trade, because it wasn’t a new trend.
The Pirates originally got Hanrahan in a similar buy low trade. He was acquired in a four player deal that saw Nyjer Morgan traded for Lastings Milledge. Hanrahan was dealt for Sean Burnett as the second part of that deal, with the intention of evening out the deal in Washington’s favor. He almost immediately turned things around and became a productive closer for a few seasons.
Then there was Hanrahan’s replacement as a closer, Jason Grilli. The Pirates added him as a minor league free agent, signing him away from the Philadelphia farm system. Once again, they saw immediate results, with Grilli going on to be one of the most dominating relievers in the game for a few seasons.
The Pirates have also gotten plenty of value pitching on a smaller scale. As I pointed out earlier today, they built a strong bullpen in 2015 off small free agent deals, waiver claims, cash trades, or trading lower ranked prospects. This wasn’t just a 2015 trend, as they’ve been doing the same thing for several years.
I bring all of this up because the 2015-16 off-season is shaping up in a similar way. Well, maybe not similar in the sense that the Pirates are coming off a 98-win season, rather than a huge collapse. And their minor league system gets constant praise for its strength, rather than 2012-13 when it got constant praise for its strength except in Pittsburgh. People expect Ray Searage to do his magic when it comes to reclamation projects, and the focus on defense behind the plate has people very comfortable with a future of Francisco Cervelli behind the plate in 2016 and Elias Diaz beyond that.
So why does it seem like the one trend that has been established all along — the ability to buy low and sell high with relievers — is still in question?
The Pirates will most likely trade Mark Melancon this off-season. It’s not a big secret, and it wasn’t a surprise when the rumors came out today suggesting that. It’s almost identical to the situation in 2013 with Hanrahan. You’ve got a closer who has been productive for a few years, with one year left on his deal, and owed a lot of money that could be better spent on other needs. The key difference is that Melancon has been much better than Hanrahan, pitching like one of the best relievers in baseball the last three years.
The comparison gets even more apt when you look at the set-up man. Grilli moved into the closer role when Hanrahan was traded, after putting up amazing numbers as a set-up man. Tony Watson would be the prime candidate to move into the closer role if Melancon was traded, after pitching like one of the best relievers in the game recently. And like 2013, the Pirates would be looking to get a solid set-up guy to pair with their new closer.
This isn’t a comfortable situation, even with the Pirates’ success. It’s a lot easier to imagine Melancon and Watson continuing their dominant late inning performance, and the Pirates not having to worry about leads after the 7th inning. But the reality is that all relievers are volatile, and a team like the Pirates needs to keep reloading and using their assets in a smart way. Spending $10 M on a closer who will be gone in a year is not a smart usage of assets. That’s especially true when they’ve got a lot of other needs, and a payroll that would be looking at a big increase with just the bare minimum upgrades and no in-season additions included.
The smart thing to do here is to deal Melancon, and find the next big reliever, just like they did to get Melancon. Despite their success in this area, the approach won’t be popular if (when) Melancon is traded away. But they seem to have a good chance of finding a strong replacement, and the money would be better used to upgrade other areas of the team. Just like the situation heading into the 2013 season.
**Starling Marte Wins First Gold Glove. Well deserved for Marte. Meanwhile, Yadier Molina wins a Gold Glove at catcher again, due to the rule that says if Yadier Molina played a single game at catcher, he must be named the Gold Glove winner.
**2015 Bullpen Recap: Once Again the Pirates Built a Strong, Cheap Bullpen. Recapping the bullpen, and looking at a few of the upper level prospects who could help the Pirates in relief one day.
**Heyman: Mark Melancon and Pedro Alvarez Are on the Trading Block. Not surprising news on either front,
**Trevor Williams is a Perfect Fit to the Pirates’ Organizational Philosophy on Pitching. The first of my AFL feature series, taking a look at the newest pitching prospect in the system. He gave a great interview, with some good quotes in the article.
**AFL Live: Tyler Eppler Struggles; Video and Photos of the Pirates Pitchers. Tonight’s live AFL recap, and my last recap of the trip. I’ll have features daily for the next week, breaking down my time here.