First Pitch: Mark Melancon and the Idea of Selling High on Relievers

If you’ve read this site over the years, then you’ll already know my stance on relievers and small market teams. I feel that the cost of relievers — both on the trade market and the free agent market — well exceeds the value that they bring. I also feel that it’s easier to get a good reliever than any other position, which is why teams (small market ones in particular) shouldn’t spend money on relievers. And in the case of small market teams, I feel there should be a sort of “relief pitching factory” where they continue buying low and selling high on relievers.

The Pirates have done an outstanding job of this process, and no trade tree could be better than the one that led to Mark Melancon. They traded Sean Burnett in 2009 for Joel Hanrahan in the second part of a deal that sent Lastings Milledge to Pittsburgh and Nyjer Morgan to Washington. The crazy part about the reliever swap is that it was made in order to even out the deal for Washington, with Burnett having more value at the time. Instead, Hanrahan became the best player in the deal.

A few years later, the Pirates flipped Hanrahan to Boston, sending Brock Holt along in the process. Most of the guys they got back didn’t work out — Stolmy Pimentel, Jerry Sands, and Ivan De Jesus. However, they did get Mark Melancon back in this deal, and as Ed Giles wrote today, Melancon has been one of the best, if not the best, shutdown relievers in the game since the trade.

It’s almost like the “red paperclip trade” story. The Pirates sent out a typical lefty reliever, and by the end of it they got a guy who quietly ranks as the best reliever in baseball in a lot of metrics.

The question I’ve been asking myself lately is whether the Pirates should continue this tree and sell high on Melancon this off-season. There wouldn’t be a better time to do this, as he will be coming off a 50+ save season, and has established himself as one of the best relievers in baseball in recent years. The return the Pirates could get for Melancon would be huge, and their track record for finding value relievers would make such a move a bit easier to deal with.

Here’s the biggest issue with that: Melancon isn’t your ordinary reliever. It was one thing to take this approach with Joel Hanrahan, or Octavio Dotel before him, or even taking this approach with middle relievers who have less value, but can still be overpriced. It’s a totally different thing to do this with Melancon, as he’s in a different class.

Hanrahan was a good reliever, but he wasn’t close to the reliever Melancon has been. They both had similar runs in their time with the Pirates. Their first full seasons were used as setup men, and they were very good in the roles. The next seasons saw them take over the closer role. And then you’ve got the full season as the closer, where Melancon has been much better. Overall, when comparing the two different three-year spans, you can see that Melancon’s value is way ahead of Hanrahan’s value in so many categories.

MelanconHanrahan

Melancon so far has been worth more than twice what Hanrahan was worth. He’s been better in every category, highlighted the most by having 40 more shutdowns and six fewer meltdowns. All of this is despite the fact that Melancon had just 13 more games than Hanrahan over his three-year span (not counting Friday’s game, or any the rest of the season). Melancon also has about 16 more innings of work during this span.

While Melancon either ranks at the top or near the top with his advanced metrics, Hanrahan is more middle of the pack at best in the top 30 during his span. Any “sell high” move with Melancon wouldn’t be a repeat of Hanrahan. It would borderline be like trading Craig Kimbrel. That really throws a wrench into the “sell high on every reliever” plan. You could replace Melancon with a good reliever, but it would be difficult to replace him with a reliever just as valuable as he has been.

Of course, the Pirates might have that replacement already in their system, as Tony Watson has been just as valuable as Melancon in all the same stats. There’s the stigma of having a lefty closer, plus the need for a new lefty setup man. But those wouldn’t be big issues, and the Pirates would still have a dominant closer, with the downgrade shifting to the eighth inning. And they could then find someone to try and take over that role, all while avoiding throwing them right into the fire as the closer from day one.

What the Pirates do with Melancon this off-season will be interesting. They’ve given absolutely no indication that they are thinking about dealing him. Their options at this point would either be extending him, dealing him, or keeping him for one more year and letting him walk for no compensation. They weren’t afraid to make a difficult and hated decision in 2012 when they dealt away Hanrahan, but this is much different, as they’ve now won and made the playoffs three years in a row. So this will really be the blueprint for how they handle the “sell high” process with relievers as a contender.

As to whether they should make that move with Melancon, part of me believes in trading relievers no matter what, especially with the Pirates’ tendency to find very talented relievers at an extremely low cost. Another part of me feels dealing Melancon might inevitably downgrade the bullpen, and it might actually be nice for the Pirates to have that luxury of Melancon and Watson for at least one more season. Then again, the “sell high” part of me knows that relievers are extremely volatile, and it only takes one injury or a few bad outings to destroy Melancon’s value (remember early April, anyone?).

It’s not an easy decision. If it was, it probably wouldn’t be a “sell high” situation, as no team would deal for Melancon in that scenario while knowing they were getting the worse end of the deal. The potential return could be huge, even for just one year of Melancon’s services. The potential replacement, Watson, is already on the team and under team control for two more seasons beyond 2015.

Fortunately, for now, the Pirates have both of them for their 2015 playoff run. After that? It might become an interesting off-season.

**Pirates Display the Five Step Plan That Could Counter Jake Arrieta. My game story from Wrigley Field, looking at how the Pirates managed to shut down one of the Cubs aces.

**Giles: Appreciating the Shutdown Combo of Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. Ed takes a look at how Melancon and Watson have been two of the best relievers in baseball the last three years.

**Pirates Pre-Game: Polanco and Ramirez Return Against the Cubs. They were both a bit sore during the game, but this is the time of year and type of series to fight through that.

  • Would hate to see Melancon leave Pirates, but there is a reality about being a small market team that requires selling high to reload. I trust Huntington, his staff, and Hurdle. Look at what they did this year with the return of Burnett, addition of Cervelli and Kang, and other the late season roster moves. The front office is making great decisions that puts more wind in the long-term Bucco sails.

  • I’m normally on the sell bandwagon for relievers and actually loved the Hanrahan trade a few years back. But with Melancon, not so much.

    He’s proven over his career to be far more durable than his predecessor(s). He’s also a different kind of pitcher. Flamethrowing relievers tend not to age well. Melancon is not that, and I see his cutter-curve combo holding it’s effectiveness for a much longer stretch of time. I saw further down somebody mentioned Mariano Rivera and that’s actually a great comparison I think, albeit one based only on stuff and not HOF credentials. He might not blow away a ton of hitters, but he won’t walk them and more often than not he’ll fool them into swings-and-misses or weak contact.

    I’ll take that. I’d approach him about a three-year extension in the neighborhood of $20-$25 million this offseason.

  • I must say the sell high, would be real high, which is what intrigues me about this. Might be the perfect time to move him, even if everyone would hate you for it. He has had such a great year, 2 years really, 3 years if you count his set up year. Law of averages says he must come back to earth, year 4 could be that year. That’s a decision I’m glad I don’t have to make.

  • I don’t want to relive collapse we saw after the Barry Bonds era. It’s important to get ahead of the impending free agency event horizon this off-season for two reasons: The transitional players are in place and we loose all of our trade chips after 2016.

    – NWalker has never shown any desire to extend and at this point no extension would make sense financially for him. Hanson has been the Bucs “most likely to succeed” fielding prospect since the day Polanco was called up and he has just the amount of AAA seasoning NH likes to see before callup seasons. I would expect a fat package with at least one ready for primetime player who might fill another need that could arise.

    -PAlvarez is what the DH was invented for. Half the MLB won’t care if he can field and Seattle might play him in at SS. Expect to be surprised at the return. Morse will be here regardless next year to hold the job till Josh Bell is ready. Aramis might also decide he’d like to re-up for another playoff run ala AJ.

    – Melancon might be the next Rivera but that is the HOF size stretch it is for a reliever to stay soooo dominant >3years. Target falling two pitch prospects with 97MPH fastballs as secondary pieces in each of these deals and the Melancon of 2017 will probably be in the mix.

    These three deals save the PBC $30M in 2016 which might be enough to buy a couple years extension from Cervelli, who also would be jetting off after 2016. The cliff is close ahead so we might as well start climbing.

  • I love the Shark – and if the Bucs would happen to win the WS I might be tempted to roll the dice with him one more year. BUT if they fall short I think the BMTIBB needs to have an honest internal assessment of how real is it to expect to compete for WS next year – given the Cubs are pretty well reloaded and the Cards will have a lot of folks back from injuries. Perhaps the best strategy might be to retool a bit next year while waiting to develop the young pitchers in the pipeline and be prepared to go for it all in 2017. I think MM is from Colorado – and Arizona is not far away from home from him and is in desperate need of a shut down closer. Wonder what they might be willing to give back…

    Nick Ahmed is awful with the bat – but a very good defensive SS – move Mercer t 2nd and you have a great defensive infield to support your young pitchers with Koreans at the corners 😉

  • they might not be able to afford melancon, so trading him would be the only thing they can do. as for walker if he goes to arbitration with the pirates his payday will make it hard to trade him. pedro has trade value to the american league.

  • I could go either way. I guess it would depend on what they got back. Their certainly not going to move him to an NL contender, at least doubtful. That really pares down the number of teams he could be dealt to in the AL. If NH decided to hang on to him another year, I wouldn’t complain.

    It’s not as simple as it looked in May. Bullpens can be so finicky.

    • That last sentence is why I try to keep this whole idea simple. I would sell high most likely. This article certainly makes harder to justify though…

      • If he had blown half a dozen saves, you’re right. It probably would be easier. One thing you hear from the team, is how he prepares. Now, it’s highly unlikely he repeats in ’16 what he did in ’17. But can Tony replicate it? Who replaces Tony in the 8th?

        It’s tough, man. I think Happ is similar. Will he pitch like this next year? Doubtful. But, what else is out there? Better the devil you know.

        • I’m already on record as feeling that the whole specific inning for a reliever thing is overrated and that it should be more match up driven, but I won’t get into that again. Basically in this situation, based on our track record, I’d be okay with trusting them to figure it out. By no means do I feel like it’s an easy decision, but it’s one that unfortunately has to be considered because of the economic situation at hand.

          • Really interested how they tackle everything. They have cash, tradeable ML assets, prospects.

  • I love Melancon but love the Pirates more. His position is the easiest to replace in baseball. Only untouchable wears 22 and last stop for him is in a small town named Cooperstown. He was a huge part of our success and we all know it. That ain’t a bad gig if you can get it.

  • Great topic/article. This offseason is going to give us insight into Huntington’s long term strategy. I think every move has to be looked at from the multi-year perspective. It would clearly be best to keep Melancon next year if only thinking about next year. However, if Melancon won’t sign a “reasonable” “long term” deal (and really why should he when he is one year from free agency), I find it hard to believe Huntington would offer him a $16 million qualifying offer. That means Melancon’s total value is just next year.

    So the only real question is – is Melancon’s 2016 value better or worse than what we could trade him for plus what we could use his roughly $9 million arbitration value for?

    • Part of me thinks that trades like this one are obvious because there is probably going to come a time when enough of these trades adds up to keeping Cutch a Pirate for the rest of his career somehow.

      Cutch is that rare player who is going to have a statue outside the stadium one day. You don’t mess with legacy players.

      The way the “best management team in baseball” (oh, I remember when the phrase was typed with great venom!) has manufactured value out of the bullpen might provide enough total value over time to secure someone like Cutch rather than sending him away.

      -Wabbit

  • Trade Melancon if the return is sufficient to justify the trade. Keep him if it doesn’t. The Pirates can always make a Qualifying Offer when the time comes if they do not want to give him a long term deal.

    A good, young ML ready left-handed starter would be a nice return.

    • Only way you make a QO is if you are positive he declines it. No way they actually want to pay their closer 15+ million for even one year.

      • He’d merit a long-term contract if he does not implode. Besides, the Pirates can afford the risk.

        • Depends on the price. They really cant afford the risk of a closer making 15+ million over 3-4 years if Melancon does what many many arms have done….look HOF like for 3-4 years and then look like a regular relief arm.

          He’s really really good, but there isnt really a reason right now to assume he’s going to be one of a handful of closers to dominate for 5+ years.

  • This is a very good synopsis, Melancon is more than your typical reliever, while his velocity returned he doesn’t seem to get the same swing and misses with his curve as in seasons past, but minimal walks, Ks (less this season) and ground-balls is pretty much the best combination for a reliever.

    Part of the overvaluing of closer is search to find the another Marino Rivera, with GM’s playing the role of Captain Ahab, but if the Pirates believe that Melancon’s cutter is good enough to control contact at this rate he should be keep around. Identifying those outliers is a fraught game.

  • I agree with the sentiments of the article entirely.

    …just a quick question though…when it’s said, the return for Melancon would be “huge”, what calibre players could be legitimately expected?

    • I’m always horrible at assessing reliever trade values. Teams tend to pay much more than the $/WAR says they’re worth.

      For example, Melancon has averaged 2.0 WAR the last three years. He’ll probably make at least $8 M in his final year of arbitration. So at $6 M per WAR, he’d have a trade value of at least $4 M. That would be about two Grade C pitchers, which is the same return the Pirates got for Snider prior to this season. And I think Melancon would be worth much more than that. I’m guessing they’d get at least one top 100 prospect.

      As an example, Andrew Miller was dealt last year at the deadline for Eduardo Rodriguez, who entered this year as BA’s number 59 prospect. Granted, that was a deadline deal, and the stakes are a bit different. But I’d imagine the value would at least be the same for a guy like Melancon with an entire season of service remaining.

  • I would handle Melancon much the same as the Yankees handled Rivera. Certain levels of quality in players doesn’t roll around regularly.

  • The Pirates also traded then closer Mike Gonzalez to the Braves for Adam LaRoche.

  • Tim, very well written article. Thanks

  • Make the deal. It is the Pirate way.

  • I wouldn’t be surprised if his name comes up in discussions this off-season. If I were NH, I would hold on to him unless there is a team who blows me away with the return.

    One thing to remember that Tim didn’t mention, there’s nothing more demoralizing for a team than to see a night’s worth of hard work flushed down the toilet by an ineffective Closer. The Pirates haven’t had to deal with this feeling very much since Melancon has been pitching the 9th innings.

    • Scott: Good points and an excellent write by Tim. I think it is more than just a possibility that MM’s name will hit the market this off-season. I love the ability he has to close games, but I still have memories of the 5.23 ERA in April when he had difficulty breaking 90 mph, and the breaking pitch was more horizontal than vertical. I think he had a bit of a dead arm to start the season, but has fought back, and has been a fantastic asset to the Pirates.

      But, his ERA has been creeping up in Aug and Sep, and yesterday’s near miss was not unusual – he struggles against the Cubs, and another team he has more trouble with is Cincy. The questions in this are many, but the only ones we need to concern ourselves with are will the Pirates pay for an $8 to $10 mil Closer, and will Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, and Joe Blanton (?) be able to pick up the slack?

      • 30 Ks, 8 BBs with .501 OPS against vs the Reds, and 50 Ks, 5 BBs, and .412 OPS vs the Cubs.

      • I think this is misrepresenting stats just a little bit. Sure his ERA has gone up in August and September, but he also gave up 1(!!) ER in May, and 0(!!) In both June and July. Hardly sustainable. Additionally, while giving up 4 ER’s in September, his luck has been unusually bad. Teams are hitting .111 off of him this month, and while he had given up 4 runs, he has done that while allowing just 6 baserunners for the entire month.
        The fact is Melancon has been scary good ever since getting out of the gates slow. I am a big proponent of selling relievers high, but just can’t get behind that idea with Melancon. Can you imagine going into a playoff game where Cole just went 7 strong and the Pirates had a 1 run lead, only to turn the ball over to Hughes or Caminero to try and get it to Watson?
        $8-$10 million is not a lot of money for a guy like Melancon to a contending team like the Pirates, and honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see NH step outside of his box a little hit this season and see if they can’t extend him

      • Emjay, I thought I read he had just recently completed the Reliever No-Hitter, 9 IP w/out giving up a hit.

        Any way you slice it, Melancon is, and has been, fantastic!

        • Scott – I thought I said that he “has been a fantastic asset to the Pirates”. I liked Hanrahan for awhile and I also liked Jason Grilli, but the question is are the Pirates willing to pay? I think he will be over $9 mil after this last year of Arbitration – that is new and uncharted territory for the Pirates. I doubt they will go in that direction.

  • While I think it makes sense to deal Melancon, it’s clearly not as cut and dry as it used to be when the Pirates were terrible. We used to sit back and mock teams like the Yankees for overpaying for premium relievers and “proven closers”. Foolish big market teams not taking advantage of market inefficiencies. Now that it actually matters if the Pirates win, it does totally alter your perspective. You see how critical it is to have depependable relievers/closers. It can literally make or break your entire season. The Pirates have struck gold with their buy low approach, but I can’t imagine even they expected Melancon to be THIS good. It will be interesting to see if they stick with their bargain bin approach (Neil has been a master at it), or if we see more trades for proven relievers like Joakim Soria in the future. Hard for me to see Neil changing strategy at this point, so I think he deals Melancon. I just hope he can continue his magic with relievers.

  • They’ll figure it out after he nails down that last game of the WS.

  • Gotta flip him as he will be too expensive next year. Unless they just can’t get anything decent for him, but I would think out of the three trade candidates Toro, Walker and Shark, Melancon would fetch the most.

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