The Pirates traded Mark Melancon today in a deal that was largely about getting future value for a guy who would be leaving after the season. It was also a move that was made to help them continue to contend this year. But the bullpen took a short-term decline in exchange for an upgrade beyond 2016.
Or did it?
As I was looking over the deal today, and looking at the makeup of the bullpen, a crazy thought occurred to me: The Pirates might actually have a better bullpen now with Felipe Rivero than they did with Mark Melancon.
I’m going to start off by pulling a Joe Biden and telling you to hold your cheers and boos and listen to me on this one.
If we’re comparing the pure talent in the bullpen, then the Pirates absolutely downgraded here. I think Felipe Rivero could be a better option than Melancon in future years, as Melancon looks like a guy about to be on the decline, while Rivero is a young left-hander who can hit 100 MPH. But this year, Melancon is easily the better reliever. And this trade just swaps the two guys, meaning the Pirates saw an overall downgrade in their talent.
When you start considering the bullpen roles, though, that’s when things get interesting. Especially when you don’t place a lot of value on the idea that pitching in the ninth inning requires some special magic, and that your best relievers are wasted in that role.
Before the trade, Melancon was locked to the ninth inning. And there were times this year when the ball didn’t even get to him, because the middle relief spots were a disaster. That has improved lately, thanks in large part to Juan Nicasio moving to the bullpen, but also due to improvements from Arquimedes Caminero and Jared Hughes (although I don’t think you can fully trust either of those two to put up consistent good outings).
Because Melancon was locked in as the closer, he could only be used as the closer. And sometimes, the way Clint Hurdle used the closer role was downright ridiculous, as he was a slave to the save stat. There were four games this year where Melancon came on for a save with a four run lead. There was one game where he came in for a save with a five run lead. And then there were seven games where he came in for a save with a three run lead. He even had two games this year where he came on to pitch when it wasn’t even a save situation, and pitching him clearly wasn’t about getting him work.
By comparison, Melancon had 11 save opportunities this year where he entered with a one run lead. He blew two of those opportunities, but the Pirates got him the win in one of them (they won the other, but he didn’t get the win, and this stat really doesn’t matter, so I don’t know why I’m even including it in this article).
So out of 33 save opportunities this year, Melancon had 11 with one run, and 12 with three runs or more, not to mention the two games he pitched with four and five run leads that weren’t even save situations. He was the top reliever in the bullpen, and you want your top reliever in for as many high leverage situations as possible. But the save stat prevented the Pirates from fully maximizing his value as a top reliever.
Rivero isn’t as good of a reliever, but the Pirates can utilize him in a much better way than they could with Melancon. They now have him in the 7th inning, while also having Juan Nicasio available for the same role, giving them two hard throwing pitchers — one from each side — who can both pitch multiple innings. They also both have ERAs in the bullpen that are much higher than their xFIPs, showing the ability for good results going forward.
There is a lot more flexibility in the seventh inning. Those guys aren’t locked in to that spot. There have been a few times this year where Neftali Feliz has come in to pitch the sixth inning when needed. One of those games saw him coming in with the bases loaded and one out, with a two run lead. The other one saw runners at first and third with two outs, and a three run lead. Imagine that concept: A talented pitcher leaving his normally designated inning to pitch in a higher leverage spot, rather than waiting and hoping the lead gets to him with no outs in a later inning, because he can only pitch in that inning with a very specific lead.
The Pirates will still have that situation in the closer’s role. Tony Watson now becomes the guy who is locked in to the ninth inning, and who will be coming on for those one out saves with the tying run on deck and a four or five run lead. If you’re a fan of the idea that it’s more difficult to pitch in the ninth inning, then Watson is a great replacement for Melancon. And while he has been used at times in the seventh inning and in a flexible role, he’s mostly been locked in to the 8th inning, so having him in a very restricted role won’t be too different.
As for the rest of the bullpen, the Pirates now have an advantage they didn’t have before: freedom from ridiculous inning-defined roles. Sure, Neal Huntington said that Feliz would be the 8th inning guy and Rivero would be the 7th inning guy. But making the argument that Feliz would only be comfortable in the 8th inning is ridiculous at this point, and the same with Rivero. The Pirates now have three hard throwing middle relievers who they can pitch at any time they want. They traded away an elite reliever who they were only using about half the time in situations where you’d want an elite reliever. They got a very good reliever who they can use at any time, and freed up their bullpen to allow any pitcher to pitch at any time.
Back in April, I asked Clint Hurdle why a guy like Tony Watson could pitch in the 7th inning when needed, but a closer couldn’t pitch outside of the ninth inning. While I don’t agree with the way Hurdle manages to the save stat, his response was very honest, and might explain why he does manage to the stat.
“We’re working within an industry where we’ve created some of our own challenges,” Hurdle said in April. “Guys don’t go get paid for holds. And what’s beautiful about our guys, is once the contract is done, they’re ready to show up and go to work. If we ever got to that point where a crazy situation would arise, Mark would move. I just feel we’re best served in the capacity with him pitching in the ninth inning right now, from a team perspective. Not a Mark perspective. He’s earned that opportunity. He’s just been so effective.”
Hurdle also said that it’s challenging for a closer to be used earlier in a game, such as the sixth inning in a key situation. And at the time, he felt the Pirates were better off keeping Melancon locked in to the ninth inning.
“There’s a challenge in our game I would think to get a closer to pitch the sixth inning,” Hurdle said. “It’s not anywhere close to as easy as some people think it is. It’s just not. I don’t have anything that I could quantify it to that people might do in their jobs that could be somewhat rated similarly. The guys we’ve got in front of that, it’s more common fabric. I’m of the opinion that our club is best suited with one closer, one man getting the ball right now, and the other guys being flexible enough to work to get the guy the opportunity.”
The Pirates now have a bullpen where they can be even more flexible in getting the ball to the ninth inning. And since Tony Watson doesn’t care when he’s used, and can pitch multiple innings, they might even be able to bring him on in the 8th inning for a multi-inning save, rather than letting one of the middle relievers or set-up guys take the higher leverage situation.
Furthermore, last off-season, their plan was to add a lot of high quality relievers who can pitch multiple innings, easing the load on the starters. This was at a time when the starters had a lot of question marks. Unfortunately, that plan fell apart. Juan Nicasio went to the rotation, Ryan Vogelsong wasn’t as good in the bullpen, Arquimedes Caminero and Jared Hughes struggled early in the year, and some of the other potential multi-inning relievers didn’t work out.
There are still a lot of question marks with the starting rotation, and a lot of young guys who might not pitch into the sixth inning every time out. Adding another multi-inning reliever like Rivero, along with recent additions like Jon Niese and Jeff Locke, and the recently improved Caminero and Hughes, puts the Pirates in a much better situation to let their bullpen take over for the rotation earlier in games. And the Pirates don’t even need to rely heavily on Caminero or Hughes this time around for that to happen.
The Pirates downgraded in short-term talent with the Melancon trade, and there’s no denying this. They still have a good late inning group, but when you trade one of the best relievers in baseball, it’s hard to not downgrade. But the reality is that, while Melancon was an elite reliever, he was being limited by the closer’s role. The Pirates now don’t have to limit themselves as much, and can be very flexible with their large group of hard throwing middle relievers, while also using that advantage to ease the pressure on their questionable rotation to pitch deeper into games. I don’t think that trade-off represents a massive upgrade, but it should off-set the drop in overall talent in the bullpen.
**Tomorrow morning we will have an article detailing where Taylor Hearn ranks in the system. This initial ranking will probably be very volatile, as it could change when we actually get a chance to see him. That will be coming up soon, as I’m heading to West Virginia next week, catching a series in Morgantown, one series in Charleston, and then traveling down for a series in Bristol. That’s two weeks of coverage, and a feature on Hearn, along with my first live look. You can get all of the reports from the upcoming trip by subscribing to the site.
**Prospect Watch: Austin Meadows Continues His Rehab Stint. All of the minor league updates, including a live report on a game to forget from Indianapolis.
**Neal Huntington Discusses the Mark Melancon Trade. The Pirates’ GM discussed the move, with details on what they saw in the two hard-throwing left-handers they got in return.
**Chad Kuhl Expected to Return to the Indianapolis Rotation on Monday. Good news from Brian Peloza, as it doesn’t look like Kuhl’s triceps issue ended up being a major injury.
**Pirates Looking For Starting Pitching Following Melancon Trade. I don’t know if they’d want to turn around and spend what it would take to get a top starter on this market. I could see them going for a J.A. Happ type deal.
**Pirates Trade Mark Melancon to Nationals. The full trade breakdown, with info on Rivero and Hearn, and my initial analysis.
**Morning Report: Comparing Last Year and This Year for Gage Hinsz. John Dreker looks at the changes from Gage Hinsz in the last year.
**Jose Osuna Is Off to a Great Start in Triple-A. From Friday, Brian Peloza looks at Jose Osuna’s hot start to his Triple-A career.