The Relief Pitching Market Is Heating Back Up

As expected, the free agent market is starting off slow, with no big deals being announced yet.  Some of that is probably due to the lack of a Collective Bargaining Agreement.  A bigger reason is something I outlined last week: free agency is traditionally slow throughout the month of November.

We have heard rumors over the past day about Philadelphia Phillies reliever Ryan Madson being close to a four year,  $44 M deal to return to the Phillies.  Nothing is official yet, but if the deal goes through, it will be just another example of the huge prices that are being paid these days for top relievers.

During the 2011 season we saw several trades take place which saw relief pitchers bring in large returns to their former teams.  The San Diego Padres traded set-up man Mike Adams to the Texas Rangers for top 50 prospect Robbie Erlin and right handed pitcher Joe Wieland.  The Rangers also sent right handed pitcher Tommy Hunter and first baseman Chris Davis to the Baltimore Orioles for relief pitcher Koji Uehara.  This wasn’t just a one year trend, as we all remember the Pirates landing James McDonald and Andrew Lambo for Octavio Dotel in 2010.

Should the Pirates trade Joel Hanrahan?

The Dotel trade is part of what fueled the discussion on whether the Pirates should have traded Joel Hanrahan this past off-season.  You see a lot of people currently taking the approach that the Pirates should have made the move, capitalizing on the favorable values being paid to relievers.  As someone who was calling for a Hanrahan trade back in July, when the Pirates were “contenders”, I can tell you that the people who wanted to trade Hanrahan were in the extreme minority.

Hanrahan has two years of arbitration left, including the upcoming season.  I’ve got him projected for a similar salary structure as Heath Bell in his final two arbitration years, which would be two years and $11.5 M.

The free agent market isn’t weak this off-season.  The current closers on the market include Bell, Madson, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Francisco Cordero and bounce back candidates like Joe Nathan and Jonathan Broxton.  If Madson does receive $11 M a year, it would likely set the market for the other top closers who are available.  That raises the question as to what kind of trade value Hanrahan has.

For teams with money to spend, the free agent market would be the best option.  They could land someone like Bell, Papelbon, or Rodriguez and spend eight figures a year in doing so.  But what about the teams that are limited financially?  A guy like Hanrahan, who has two years of control remaining, and will likely cost the same in those two years as one year of Madson, would be a very attractive option to a team that is financially limited this off-season.

Hanrahan wouldn’t be the only option on the trade market.  Oakland’s Andrew Bailey is also rumored to be on the market.  As for teams who could be looking for a closer, the first place to look would be the former teams of the names above.  Toronto has been listed as a team looking for closing help.  Boston would obviously need a closer if Papelbon left.  There’s the usual talk in Texas of Neftali Feliz moving to the rotation, which would create an opening.  The Twins would need someone with Joe Nathan and Matt Capps departing.

Whether it would be best to trade Hanrahan now is up for debate.  He’s got a lot of value, with two years of control at what looks to be a below market rate, and he’s coming off a strong season.  Relievers are never a guarantee from year to year, and Hanrahan’s trade value can totally disappear with a bad month in 2012.  On the other hand, there are a lot of options available on the market right now, which could lower Hanrahan’s value.  Because relievers aren’t a guarantee, there are bound to be some teams looking for bullpen help at the trade deadline in 2012.  Since there aren’t any top free agents available at the deadline, Hanrahan’s value will be much higher at that point, assuming he maintains his production and stays healthy.

It’s too early to tell which teams will be looking for closers, and which of those teams will favor a lower price tag versus saving prospects and going the free agent route.  The best thing for the Pirates to do might be to wait it out until the top free agents sign, then see who is left looking for help.  That would give a boost to Hanrahan’s value, allowing the Pirates to get the best return possible if they want to deal him.

As for whether the Pirates should deal Hanrahan or not, my opinion hasn’t changed from July.  I don’t believe it’s hard to find good closers.  I think teams pay out of convenience and comfort, so that they don’t have to go with an unknown player to start the season.  Just because teams pay $11 M a year for a guy like Madson doesn’t mean a team like the Pirates should make their top closer untouchable.  The Pirates currently have needs at catcher, first base, and shortstop.  They have a third baseman who had a horrible season in 2011, and no one really knows what they’re going to get from the young outfielders, Neil Walker, or some of the surprise rotation members of 2011 like Charlie Morton or Jeff Karstens.

With the makeup of the current team, it’s not important to have a dominant closer.  The Pirates would be better off dealing Hanrahan – ideally to fill other positions of need – and giving a shot to some of their internal options, like Evan Meek, Chris Leroux, Jason Grilli, Chris Resop, Jose Veras, or even Bryan Morris.

  • Tim and Bonds…I couldn’t agree with you more.I was actually hoping they would trade Hanny in July when he was really worth something,before he reverted to the ” Wash.Nat’s Hanrahan “,which he was working on the last month or so of the season.The Rangers were the team I would have tried to deal with,as they were desperate,as they indeed showed when the traded Erlin and another good prospect for Adams.A closer doesn’t do much good when he is sitting in the BP night after night watching his team getting pounded.JohnW,are youreally paying attention that you have to use that boring statement all the time ?

  • Just what we need, another SALARY DUMP

  • A bad month of Hanarahan makes him Wash Nats Hanarahan so not only did he stink he now has low trade value. He’s no Mariano Riviera, started showing some chinks late in the season. Better off dealing now and getting a JJ Putz type( who was pretty bad recently and had a good season) to close games if Meek or someone else isnt ready.

  • i agree in all accounts with tim. we have very few trading blocks that will bring a good return, other than our young  players in minors. as tim stated, the only way we can afford to get players we need long term is to trade or draft. even though some dwell on our losing, i feel there is a big difference in our future than there was five years ago. granted a lot is based on potential but that was not even close to the potential in the past losing. especially have high end prospects , rated that way by others. key is the evaluation of those we bring in on trades or medium priced free agents.

  • Brian Bernard
    November 9, 2011 4:43 pm

    One last point to Tim also… it seems that at times your viewpoint is to fill a roster out and less about finding IMPACT type players – the Pirates have very few of those types on their roster at this time. I’d be hesitant to let go of the ones they have.
    I know the ideal plan is to get two impact players for one, however how likely is that? OK McDonald has been an impact SP but Locke may just be filler. I want a team that competes to win, not to just field a team that is financially appropriate for the market.

    • Brian, I have the same argument, why fill the holes with the same level of talent? why not get better players for the positions that are available? There is no way that I punt on 2012.

      • The question for you then is how are you going to fill those holes with that level of talent.  Either you sign it via free agency, which they can’t do, or you trade for it.  To trade for a prospect that could be an impact player, you need to trade impact players.  Once again you have CP, CF and 2B which are quality MLBers that you can expect to get a good level of production from.  Every other position is a huge variable on what you will get.  You can’t add pieces to contend in 2012 when there are that many holes.

      • What are your solutions? All of my views are based on what is actually happening on the market, and not with the ideal team in mind. The ideal team is nice, but my approach is to look at the realistic team.

    • I’m not sure I follow your statement on filling a roster out. If you’re referring to my approach with free agency, I don’t think the Pirates can get impact players through that method. I think they can get impact players through the drafts, and possibly through trades. The reason I’d deal Hanrahan is that it gives the Pirates a chance to land an impact player. Sure, people consider Hanrahan an impact player. I just disagree with that, because I don’t think relievers make a big impact, and I think they’re easy to replace.

  • With the makeup of the current team, it’s not important to have a dominant closer.
    I have to disagree with this statement. Many baseball people think the bullpen is the key to winning the pennant and many think the Cards/Rangers series was decided by the Pen.
    Early last season the Pirates pen had much to do with where they where at in the standings.
    When you have a small market team, you have to shorten the game, your shorten the game by being ahead after 5 and having a shut down pen from the 6th on. When this happens, you don’t need the best starters in the world. Nine inning starters are a lot tougher to find than guys that can go 6.
    So IMO, I not only think it important to have a dominant closer, but I also think it is vital to have a dominant 8 inning shut down type pitcher. The rest of the team can be average as far as I am concerned, I want a team that when it gets ahead, it stays ahead.

    • Brian Bernard
      November 9, 2011 4:38 pm

      Good points Leadoff and I concur. Hanrahan was a key component to our success last year and to make that point more relevant – let us not forget that Hanny and Meek were to compete and Meek got hurt which gave Hanny to role. Meek never returned to form – had we not had Hanny our bullpen would have been a real problem IMO. Also our difficulties in the 8th inning late last year caused many a problem as well. You can’t have enough dominant pitchers – whether they start the game – or get you over the finish line and Hanny is dominant.

      • That’s not the point being made though.  No one’s saying a closer isn’t important for a winning team.  The point is last season’s win total was probably a fluke and there is no reason to have a closer on a team with only CF and 2B as non question marks.  The Pirates having Hanrahan is like putting $10,000 rims on a 1992 Honda Civic.

    • This is really a chicken and the egg debate. Yes, it’s good to protect the leads that you have so that you win as many games as possible. However, where are those leads coming from? What good is protecting a lead if you’re not getting enough leads to contend?

      I would rather go in to the season with a question mark at closer and extra prospects from a Hanrahan trade. This doesn’t rule out a dominant closer. It just takes you from a sure thing to an unknown.

  • I agree, dealing Hanrahan in the right deal would be the best move for the Pirates, however I think we should hang onto him until the deadline.  That way we will find a team desperate for reliever help and the Pirates will be able to maximize the return while also getting half a season to find a replacement, and see if Meek can be that guy.