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.
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.