First Pitch: We’re Well Beyond the Point of Trusting the Pirates With Reliever Moves

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.

  • I don’t have “complete faith”. Ernesto Frieri is too recent.

  • The truth is out there!

  • Everyone knows I am no expert at this, but If I was a GM looking to pick up a Pirates reliever who has a lot of miles of him, I would first look at the success of the relievers after we traded them away the last few years.

    Are the Pirates considering trading Melancon because they know that arm may be just about ready to fall off?

  • As Mulder would say: “Trust no one”.

  • Tim it’s nothing personal and I respect your work on prospects a lot. I just feel you are way too sanguine and too big of a believer in the narrative NH never has to pay up for bullpen pieces. In 2014 you were saying how the team didn’t need to make a deadline move and that there was plenty of talent in the pen- they just needed to use Frieri and Stolmy in a better way. I couldn’t have disagreed more at the time and still disagree. A move to upgrade the pen is never guaranteed to work but sometimes is worth the chance(see this year in Soria). Some will say we got Blanton for nothing but that doesn’t always happen either. There is no need to limit yourself to one specific approach. We did BOTH this year and they both hit. We should have added someone in 2014 imo(more than Jon Axford) There’s no guarantee it would have worked but in retrospect August 2014 was very poor month for basically everyonce except Tony and Mark.

    • I’m curious to see what the return for MM will be before I judge this potential deal. I’d hate to see Mark go, but what if we get a nice return AND back fill the bullpen. It’s a nice thought.

      • I hope they do get a nice return and fill the bullpen. I’m just saying my opinion is that’s a lot easier said than done.

    • “In 2014 you were saying how the team didn’t need to make a deadline move and that there was plenty of talent in the pen- they just needed to use Frieri and Stolmy in a better way.”

      I said there was talent in the bullpen. That wasn’t my argument on Stolmy and Frieri. My argument was that if they weren’t going to use Stolmy, they needed to release him and stop wasting a spot. Also, I didn’t think Frieri should have an important role.

      But that bullpen ended up ranking 6th in MLB in ERA and 8th in xFIP in the second half, along with first in both categories in September.

      • That bullpen was very good in September when HOldzkom came around to fill the 7th inning. It certainly was not good in August when we were still plugging guys like Jared Hughes in to pitch the 7th inning.

        • Characterizing it as if Holzkom was the only reason we improved is false and unfair.

          We had 4 arms that, in August, gave us under 3 ERA and FIP.

          We had 2 more that gave under 3 ERA but likely got some luck since their FIP was way worse.

          But a 27 ERA from Sadler and (as Tim points out) terrible usage of Pimentel 12 ERA. That skews overall numbers, and in Sept we stopped using those guys. We used Sadler and Pimentel for 1 inning, and increased innings for Axford and Holdzkom.

          It wasnt just 1 guy that saved our bullpen, he helped out what was already a 3-5 deep bullpen of good to great options. Melancon-Watson-Wilson-Axford were performing well in August.

          • The bullpen was very bad in August outside Mark and Tony. If you want to argue that feel free. 5/9 shutdown meltdown ratio. Jared Hughes should never be pitching the 7th inning for you. That’s just not a role for him. It was a matter of time before it burnt us and it certainly burnt us that August. That one game vs the Cards comes to mind. WE DID NOT have an adequate 7th inning option in August.

            • Gotcha, so the logic is “no no, its bad and this one stat i use proves it even if you point out other valid stats”.

              If you wanna argue with yourself go for it. But i just pointed out that you are not being fair at all and picking and choosing stats while ignoring other evidence.

              You then use single games as proof. To say our bullpen was bad in August after the back 2 is false, and shutdown/meltdown is flawed. It ignores those ERA/FIP/xFIP stats that actually show more about a pitchers overall game.

              • No the logic is it’s good it’s good cause I say so so stop saying what you’re saying I don’t like it!

                Hughes was one of the most pivotal pitchers in then pen at that point of time and was HORRID in August. Why aren’t you talking about his Xfip was 4.53 or Jeanmar who had an Xfip over 5. And btw Jeanmar pitched twice as many innings as Ax that month.

                But keep telling yourself it was pretty good. Outside Mark and Tony the bullpen as a whole was very poor in leverage situations that month.

                • Why was Hughes more pivotal than Axford? Is there a reason for that or just more assumptions and “this one game” stuff.

                  Axford was given the 7th more than a few times and was our best reliever in August. You were the one that said all relievers not Mark and Tony were pretty bad, and that means its on you to explain the stats from John Axford and Justin Wilson and why those guys are “pretty bad” as you said.

                  I dont argue the pen had some rough options, but i do argue against the narrative that we only had 2 good options. Because, in August, Axford was lights out. And Wilson was far from bad. You are ignoring things to fit the narrative, and pointing to only that which confirms yourself. I admit they had bad options, but it wasnt all arms but 2 guys. We had 4 guys throwing well in August, and that is factually accurate.

                  You have said over and over the bullpen was bad after the 8-9 guys and didnt care to specify, so i pointed out that 2 guys make that assertion false. Gomez and Hughes did struggle in periphs, but Axford and Wilson certainly were not bad. Thats 4 good to great arms with others struggling.

                  • Because Hughes was relied on much more than Axford. Axford pitched 4 innings that month vs 12 from Hughes. Hughes was basically our go to guy after Mark and Tony for quite awhile. 4 good to great arms is not enough with 7 guys. We had too many holes in that pen. My basic point is this: it would have been a good idea to add another Soria type arm. Would it have guaranteed a different result? No- but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been a good move from a process standpoint.

      • Where do you think 2014 Cardinals had a big advantage over us in the pen? It wasn’t on backend. Mark and Tony were clearly as good or better than Rosie and Neshek. It was after you got past the backend. Their shutdown/meltdown was 80/50 vs ours being 66/54. Our other guys blew too many games. Should have added an arm before Holdzkom arrived.

        • The meltdown numbers are basically the same there. They just didn’t have as many shutdowns.

          • It’s the ratio more than the meltdown imo. Let’s put it another way. When you take away the setup and closer the Cards pen basically added 1.5 WPA in 2014 while ours lost about 1.5 WPA. A 3 game differential. Do you really want to argue that our 3-7 guys in the pen weren’t worse than the Cards in 2014?

          • LOL Tim, cmon! Do you really think if the the options in the Pirates Pen after MM and Tony would have another 14 opportunities they would have had 100% shutdown ratio?? It would be kind to say they would have had a 9/5 shutdown ratio, very kind. Which would bring #s to something like 73/58. Still much worse than Cards.

    • I remember that month to be bad because of injuries to Cutch and Marte more than bullpen failures.

      • -1.49 WPA in August. 17/13 shutdown/meltdown ratio not ideal. As usual Mark and Tony were very good that month. The other guys not so much. Jared Hughes started pitching like a guy you’d never want to entrust to the 7th inning at a very inopportune time among other problems. We clearly could have used a 7th inning arm(something like 2015 Soria) to bump everyone down a notch in terms of leverage.

        • I should also add that outside Melancon and Watson the rest of the pen was particularly bad in August. Shutdown/Meltdown ratio of 5/9.

          • Stop saying this as if its true of the entire bullpen. No, the bullpen wasnt all bad after those two. We had other arms doing well and you dont cite stats like FIP and xFIP or ERA because it kills this dumb notion.

            Justin Wilson in August: 2.92/2.40/3.40 far from bad
            John Axford in August: 1.93/1.63/1.90 better than Waston

            Thats 4 arms in August that were average or better. And beyond that, using 1-2 months to judge a bullpen is SSS dumb on its face. Our bullpen wasnt amazing that year, but it was far from terrible even beyond the back 2.

            • LOL it wasn’t good beyond it’s back 2. Sorry if that bothers you. -1.5 WPA from the rest of the pen in 2014. Wilson wasn’t good in leverage in August. He had around -.6 WPA and helped blow 2 key games. One vs Miami and took the loss vs the Nats.

              What I’m telling you is we could have used another arm by the end of July 2014.

              So let met get this straight. If we could go back in time to July 2014 you would just roll with the options we had. You would just “use them differently”. You would roll with Ax, Jeanmar, Wilson, Hughes and Cumpton behind Mark and Tony going into that August?

              • I cannot believe folks are arguing with you about how good the middle relief was leading into September of 2014. I’d think they didn’t even follow the team if I did’t know better.

                • Man, is this going to be a neat column/comment section to look back on.

                  • Like I said to Luke above, there’s gonna be a loooooot of people disappointed in Huntington if he isn’t able to pull off another incredible off season, or at least they should be, given all this trust they have in him. Incredibly high expectations being placed on him and his people.

  • Perhaps Holdzkom will return to form.

  • I think the “trust” issue is fairly clear. For the Melancon’s, Grilli’s, and Hanrahan’s there have also been the Bryan Morris’s, Ernesto Frieri’s, John Holdzkom’s, Radhames Liz’s, and Arquimedes Caminero’s.

    What the club has been able to do is keep the spot at the top of the food chain secure, which goes a looooong way towards covering up the misses. For all the praise, we are still talking about a club who has had to go out and make in-season moves for key bullpen spots in each of the past two years. When you destabilize an important and successful role in a division that is so competitive, I think it’s very natural to be wary.

    This takes nothing away from what Huntington & Co have done. It’s simply a matter of risk. Trading Melancon when there *absolutely* is money to keep him is risky. That’s inarguable.

    Whether or not they should *actually* trade him should come down to what happens with the rest of the roster this winter, and that includes what could be added to the big club in return for Melancon. If they aren’t able to do much more than bring back Happ or similar mid-rotation arm, then destabilizing a position of strength very easily sets up to be an unforced error.

    • NMR is 100% spot on and one thing nobody is talking about is that Tony Watson had some concerning #s down the stretch. His Xfip in the 2nd half of season was 4.44 and was over 5 in September. His K/9 was was down ALOT to 5.29 per 9. I’m not sure I want him sliding into closer’s role as some have speculated he can do and just take over for Mark. And if he stays as set up man I’m anxious to see the new closer. That doesn’t even get into the domino effect. I don’t understand how people assume history will repeat itself because selling high on Hanrahan worked out so well. As NMR astutely points out, the fact the top of the food chain was so good the last 3 years covered up some other misses no one seems to rememeber.

    • I would agree with all that. If the Pirates are able to sign add two competent starting pitchers – preferably Happ being one – upgrade first base and find a better super utility guy than Sean Rodriguez this offseason, I would be okay with them trading away Melanceon. However the fact that they have done a good job tinkering with the bullpen in the past is no guarantee that they will be as successful at it in the future. In the abstract, I would feel much better about the team if Melanceon stays.

      • With the amount of FA money leaving, and the potential for Alvarez and Melancon leaving. It is easily feasible they could sign Happ, Fister and Linncecum, all for 10m each and still have payroll flexibility. If they could trade Morton, the the salieries or Melancon, Morton and Burnett almost fully covers that proposition. Sign me up for a rotation of Cole, Liriano, Happ, Fister and Linncecum anyday.

    • Typical, Nutting is cheap, Huntington is stupid lucky, glass is half empty, insight from the ever pessimistic NMR.

      It must suck to be a fan of a winning team with your doom and gloom attitude.

      • LOL it’s funny- I read that passage and didn’t interpret it that way at all.

        • If you’ve spent any amount of time paying attention to Scott this shouldn’t surprise you at all. God help anyone who dares to question.

      • The funniest part about this *absurdly* ignorant comment is that I’ve spent YEARS on Pirate message boards being called literally the exact opposite of all that. Your point of view is so extremely pollyanna that you cannot comprehend even the slightest difference of opinion.

        • You’re right, I’m guilty of being a Pollyanna about the Pirates for 98 reasons that I can think of this year alone.

          Now maybe you can open your eyes to the fact you discount any fact which doesn’t support your preconceived beliefs, and exaggerate those that do.

          And if you’re the voice of optimism about the Pirates on other message boards, than I’m glad I don’t visit them. At least the $2.99/month keeps the cheap Chicken Little’s away from this one.

          • Listen, at this point I have absolutely nothing to learn from you and you clearly don’t appreciate what I have to say.

            Stop commenting to me and I’ll gladly never interact with you again. Nobody wants to read this childish bullshit.

            Steve Z, you too.

            • Typical Internet bully. Quick to make personal attacks on others and when given a dose of your own medicine, act as if you’re a victim.

              As for your offer, I’m all for it.

          • Well, I will say that you’re just as wrong to be pollyanna about 98 as someone would be for being “sky is falling” over 88. The pirates, honestly, are somewhere in between those numbers…and maybe not even that if the bullpen and rotations take steps back. We have yet to truly see even a prolonged stretch where both the rotation and the bats have excelled.

            • In 2015, they were a 98 win team. As for next year, who knows. As Bill Parcells said, you are what your record is.

              You’re right about the bats and rotation for sure.

              • I really hope a team wouldn’t make personnel moves, however, based solely on their record the previous year.

                • Who has suggested they take that into consideration?

                  My point is NH has put together a strong organization and us fans should trust he will continue to do so.

                  Some commentators are inclined to look over the good moves and nitpick the few that haven’t worked out though.

    • Is it fair to throw Caminero on a list that insinuates it was a poor move? I’d think taking a guy off waivers and him throwing out mid 3s ERA and FIP is a win. Not a huge win, but if we get okay middle relief arms for free thats still effective resource allocation.

      Depends on what we are calling wins/losses, but that list seems really longer on one side unless middle relief/long relief arms arent counted as wins.

      • No I’d characterize Caminero as a win. A small win but a win nevertheless. .2 WAR IIRC. Very good at times, very poor at others. All in all a win though. Just compare him to 2014 Stolmy if you want a comparison of some former guys we had in our pen.

      • Again, like I said to Tim below, it’s not that simple anymore.

        Grabbing a guy off waivers and getting what they got out of Caminero is absolutely a win, but absolutely *NOT* if that guy was how you intend to replace Mark Melancon.

        This team won’t get better with the Vance Worley/Aquimedes Caminero “wins” at this point. They’re already too good. That’s a compliment, but also illustrates that their jobs have gotten harder.

        • Your making it more complicated for no reason. They bring in a large amount of these guys for the purpose of some never making it to the roster, some making it, some being decent and maybe 1-2 being great.

          Couple that with legit young talent like a Watson and a trade guy once in awhile and its possible to build a good bullpen on the cheap. That hasnt changed with them winning, and really the reaction from fans hasnt changed. When considering dealing Hanrahan it was the same issues we are discussing today. He’s critical to the team, you cant find good closers anywhere, etc.

          Replacing Melancon wont be the real issue, it’ll be replacing Watson in the 8th. Thats not easy, but also not insanely difficult it we give the FO some slack.

          • Ha! Please.

            • Well that settles the debate for sure.

              • Shoot, that didn’t convince you? 😉

                But seriously, more complicated than it is? Cut them some slack? I seem to be the only guy in this conversation who is actually cutting them some slack.

                There’s a growing theme around here this offseason of just trust trust these guys, they’ve made all these great moves before and they’ll do it again. Rotation, bullpen, offense…these expectations are starting to pile up awfully high. I can only assume that if the club stagnates or regresses, there’s going to be a ton of people disappointed in Huntington’s performance. Better not be hearing any oh well, baseball’s a crapshoot talk.

                I, personally, don’t place nearly that high of expectations on Huntington. This game is too damn hard. If Melancon is traded, that means Huntington will be expected to fill 4 out of 7 bullpen slots to back up a rotation with exactly one starter that can be expected to go six or more every time out. If you’re marginalizing how difficult that will be, for a team that expects to be one of the top five in the game, you’re not even close to giving the task as much credit as it deserves.

                Trading Melancon may very well turn out to be the correct call, but doing so will almost certainly only make Huntington’s job more difficult, and the risk of failure going into 2016 higher.

                • Last paragraph seems spot on. I certainly dont think many are, or should, give the team a ton of slack on offense. They’ve done well, but they have rolled with some…less than inspiring options at spots and mostly the bench.

                  Even the rotation one could argue they’ve been better at outside acquisitions than internal (a bit skewed by drafting HS guys but thats part of that process, drafting HS guys leads to less fan love until they show up 5 years later).

                  I just look at the bullpen as one area where i dont have a ton of doubt in them. They’ll mess up a few times, but thats surrounded by about 3-4 good stories. Since i doubt they’ll look waiver wire for a closer, seems like any trade would include some type of relief arm able to cover the 7th or 8th innings. Wont be a sexy guy but likely useful.

                  • C’mon man am I reading this right because if not I apologize/ but are you saying their bullpen success/failure ratio is actually 3:1 or 4:1 as far as guys they bring in

                    • I really am saying its about 3:1. For every guy that shows up and tanks, i feel like about 3 show up and overperform.

                      Which isnt to say they are all dominate, but to say that for every guy they bring in who does worse than expected, there are about 3 that do better than people assumed. List is gonna have long reliever, middle reliever, closers all on it. Id say it’d have about 3 closers on it, 3 long relief arms, and varying amounts of middle relief guys.

                      Its a subjective thing, but there is no way its a 50/50 split. This FO has at worst been 2:1, where every guy that totally underperforms is met with 2 that did better than he has/was projected to. Which is why, at this point, i give them slack for bullpen creation. They’ve not been 100%, and have mucked some up, but if you feel they bring in as many who fail as succeed i disagree with either what you call a success or just your point in general.

                    • Its basically going to devolve into an argument where you think some guys who werent great but werent bad arent “successes” and i do.

                      Guys like Mazzaro and Gomez were never terrific, but thats a win for the team. They got solid production from guys that were basically free. Even Caminero is an overall win, for as inconsistent as he was his overall numbers are a big win for a guy off waivers. They’ve got small wins in areas like the above mentioned.

                    • Those “small wins” are essentially meaningless in this conversation about replacing Melancon.

                      Also don’t actually give much of a reflection on the Pirates ability to find relievers. The kind of success they’ve had with Mazzaro and Gomez happens all the time, all around baseball.

                    • So thats two arguments: its arguing about replacing Melancon (which wasnt the above issue)

                      And saying many teams find cheap long relievers that are not sucky. I find fault with that.

                    • Luke, look around. It’s simply not that hard to find.

                    • Im not asserting that fact so its not on me to find it, if it is easy.

                    • I would agree with you there. Actually I think the 2013 pen was one of the more impressive builds because Mazzaro and Gomez broke camp and filled the long relief, 5th, 6th guy well all season. Mazzaro was an ideal signing, I’d love to find a 2016 version of 2013 Vin Mazzaro. Someone that can give us 70 plus innings, over 50% GB rate and FIP not much above 3. I just think those guys are a lot harder to find for nothing than most people realize, even for someone as good as NH. I’m just afraid we might have to struggle with a guy or 2 in the 2016 pen(at least when the season starts) who is more like 2014 Stolmy or Radhames… nice arms but not very nice production. But I’d take the 2013 version of Vin in a millisecond.

                    • They may be tougher to find, but NH has been consistently good at doing it. Of the last 4-5 long relievers we had, 3-4 of them were basically free and really effective.

                    • Of the last 4-5 3-4 were really effective? Not seeing that.

                      2015 started out with Liz- he was beyond horrible. Had nearly -2 WPA in limited innings. After that it was Worley- he never really took to the role either. His xFIP was barely below 4 and had 1/5 shutdown/meltdown ratio. While he seems like he should have been good for the role I’d argue he never really was. Blanton was excellent.

                      2014- who were your long relievers? I’d say the 2 primary long relievers in 2014 were Stolmy and Jeanmar. And they both stunk that year. 4.16 xFIP for Stolmy and a worse FIP, 4.25 xFIP for Jeanmar. Both below replacement level.

                      So I’m counting 5 guys tried there in last 2 years. To be generous I’d say 2 worked. Certainly not a 75-80% success ratio recently.

                    • Seriously. This conversation is blowing my mind. Did Luke watch the Pirates for the last two seasons?

                    • I’m not trying to single out Luke but this sort of illustrates my problem. Take just this specific example of the long reliever and NH. I think Luke isn’t alone and there is this narrative that NH basically always finds a competent or even very good long reliever. And I just don’t think that’s consistent with the facts. And that’s NOT a knock on NH. I think he is excellent. As you pointed out NMR, I just think the expectations put on the man are not at all realistic for ANY GM. As if , “hey it’s NH, he’s gonna go out and find a good long reliever on the cheap, he almost always does”. And then I look, at at least the last 2 years and I think- well we never really filled that role until Blanton came along. So as far as 2014 and 2015 are concerned that was probably at least 60-70% of that time span where our long relief was mediocre to be generous. But we are supposed to assume that NH will just go find another one in 2016 because he basically always does. I just don’t think that viewpoint is consistent with past history. And believe it or not, I’m a BIG, VERY BIG NH fan.

                      According to many fans such as Luke, a realistic expectation is that NH will find a long reliever who is “basically free and really effective”

                • And this is why I love reading your posts. This is spot on. 100%

    • How are Holdzkom and Caminero poor moves?

      Holdzkom was amazing in 2014. He had an injury filled season this year.

      Caminero was added to be a middle reliever and put up a 3.62 ERA/3.77 xFIP over the entire season.

      Morris had a 3.46 ERA/4.33 xFIP in his time with the Pirates, and was a solid reliever in 2013. So that’s a much different class from Frieri and Liz.

      No one is saying they’ve been perfect with every move. And not every reliever has turned into one of the top relievers in the game. They’ve been highly successful adding guys like Grilli, Melancon, and Hanrahan, but this doesn’t make anything less than those relievers a loss.

      • Holdzkom and Caminero weren’t “poor moves” at all.

        They were perfectly fines moves. But what they weren’t, at least to this point, were relievers that actually realized the back end potential many envisioned. Which gets to the crux of the issue in replacing Melancon, and really, many of the decisions facing the Pirates right now.

        The intent shouldn’t be to tread water, and certainly not to regress. The intent should be to improve. And improving on an already good team is not easy. Due to the Front Office’s success, their job actually becomes harder. Sweet life, right?

        You *absolutely* have to factor the guys who didn’t turn into Melancon/Grilli/Hanrahan into their success rate when discussing the potential replacement for Melancon. I have no doubt that *eventually* a successor will be found, maybe even this winter, but blindly trusting the timing will work out seems off to me.

        Why not trade Melancon before last year when he had even greater value if it’s apparently so easy for the Front Office to replace him?

        • When discussing just the bullpen. treading water would actually be fine. So long as treading water means a bullpen with a terrific back end and a good not great middle of guys like Hughes and Caminero.

          The team overall should strive to be better, but you arent gonna do a ton better than our bullpen last year unless you pay to have back end arms throwing in the 6th or 7th all year.

          • Oh, *only* a terrific back end in good middle relief? That’s it? Piece of cake, moving on.

          • Terrific back end more difficult without Melancon.

            • Yes, but i think my thinking is thats always been true when losing a closer. It was difficult when trading Hanrahan, and seemed difficult when thinking of moving on from Grilli before his 1 month made us think he was done.

              I think its always gonna be difficult, and its a risk, but at this moment i do tend to think this FO is capable of doing that.

      • 10 IP for Holdzkom. The following year, barely healthy.

        Still has a lot to prove to me.

        • He’s also the only guy in AAA that looks worthy of a big league bullpen role next year.

          There’s been a ton of hot takes surrounding the Pirates system/drafting/development this year, much of it hyperbole. Very little of it I actually agree with. But there’s no making excuses for just how bad they’ve been at developing pitching to date when the failed starters haven’t even been good enough to be cheap middle relievers. It’s frankly pretty amazing. All the arms drafted in ’08/’09/’10 and the club is going to have to go outside the organization, again, to fill marginal middle relief roles.

      • They are only poor if you are essentially replacing Mark Melancon’s WAR with their WAR (replacing Mark with them).

    • Any trade can’t be analyzed until we see the return and how the money is spent elsewhere on the roster. Until then this is all interesting but not really necessary. No doubt moving melancon is a risk. As is keeping him and expecting no regression. As is not improving other holes on the roster.

  • I have doubts Watson will be a great closer. It’s a domino effect as well. The Royals demonstrated not just in the postseason, but the regular season how a dominant bullpen can compensate for mediocre starting pitching. Being able to hand the game over in the 6th inning to a dominant pen is a huge advantage. And even if Watson closes well(big question) I worry about who our options will be if he have to pull Jeff Locke after 5th inning in 3-3 game. Memories of the 2014 bullpen are very fresh in my mind. I sure as hell hope we aren’t going back to Hughes as our 7th inning man and Caminero as setup man. Or something of that sort. That’s my fear.

  • Will be interesting to see how this plays out – as others have noted it is a buyers market. If I were on the buyer side I am not sure MM would be my first – or even my fifth choice. Might this lead him and his agents to consider some kind of incentive laden multiyear deal?

    I am all for selling high – but not sure he will get back what many seem to think he will in a trade.

    • Name 4 other closers you’d take over Melancon that are rumored to be available.

      At best, you get Chapman-Kimbrel-Miller, and if you dont then put Melancon you are being dumb. You gonna take Papelbon over Mark?

      Mark isnt the top of the market, but he’s top 3 or tied for 3rd.

      • depends…
        Asking price and age and years of control are important. MM will be a free agent at the end of next season – so someone like Giles would be higher than him on my list. Soria is not as good as MM – but is a free agent and could be signed to a multi year deal at an attractive price.

        I am not down on MM – just think the market is not conducive to getting max value for him…

        • You dont actually know the market, so thats really presumptive and flawed. We know names that might be on the market, but we dont know asking price or how willing teams are actually to moving guys.

          People are running with the idea that guys like Kimbrel are on the market, but that could easily actually mean SD is willing to move him for 2 top 100 prospects…something no one will move for a closer.

          The market is very much TBD at this point. Could have 3 top tier closers all heavily shopped, or 1-2 of those guys arent heavily shopped and are just open if someone wows with an overpay.

          • if you do a bit of googling u will learn that every closer is in play. The Phillies have not ruled out moving Giles – the Nats have all their backend guys in play – some of this is smoke and mirrors no doubt – some is testing the waters. But Tim’s idea that closers are not hard to find and build is pretty will known by now. My point is that the chances of converting MM into Profar or some other high upside return is TBD.

            It may happen – and the cutter can work into the late 30s or in the case of MR 40s – what I would personally prefer would be for the Bucs and MM to find a way to be creative and put together a deal that would allow him to have security and the Bucs to have cost certainty – a five year deal with a large chunk deferred to his 40s and 50s could be team friendly – and keep him in Pittsburgh.

            • If i do a bit of googling i can find literally anything.

              I have no doubt all top closers could be moved, but that doesnt mean they set the market and they are legit in play. SD will surely listen to offers, but i dont see him actually being moved since they want the moon for him.

              Thats not actually being in play, its listening to all offers. Chapman is far more likely to move imo, and then Melancon is clearly the next best item. Stop comparing Giles to any of the top 3, he’s good but not anywhere near the value of those guys. Thats a personal preference and fine, but nowhere near the market reality.

  • Here’s one for you: Melancon, Walker, Locke and Tarpley for Jurickson Profar or Odor+Andrew Faulkner. The Rangers would move Odor to SS and Walker at 2B. Melancon as closer, Locke as lefty 5th starter.

    Likely takes more from us…

    • I’m all for targeting Profar, but the Rangers have Elvis Andrus locked in at SS and Odor isn’t going anywhere, so they’d have no need for Walker. Melancon + Harold Ramirez + third piece for Profar + bullpen piece seems more likely. Unfortunately, Daniels has already said he’s not going to sell low on Profar, so it will probably take even more.

  • I do have some faith in the Pirates abilities to build a bullpen…I do not love the market in which they enter to trade Mark. Seems like a buyers market with the availability of Soria. Melancon, Kimbrel, Chapman, Papelbon, Storen, Cishek, and potentially Miller. If a team wants a buy-low bounce-back type option it’s there: Cishek. If a team wants “proven” that’s is also there. I might not put all of these guys into Melancon’s tier but many are…and Melancon doesn’t fit the typical closer profile which, despite his success, does carry weight as there are some GMs that simply will prefer the “typical” closer. We have to assume there will be a plethora of buyers if we are also to assume we will be able to sell high on Mark, I fear. I’m not doom and gloom about it, but this isn’t an ideal market to do what we really want to do.

    With that in mind, I would he curious what Melancon could do in a package deal for Jurickson Profar. Banny is with the Rangers so that should help…they could use bullpen help…and Profar is “expendable” with the rise of Odor. Just something to throw out there

    • Great point about the buyers market.

      • That is why I think it will be more difficult to pull off exactly what we want to with Mark. AJ Preller will probably screw up a kimbrel trade but there are still other options and more traditional closers.

    • You are right Jared. I am afraid though with alot of big names out there, the FO should have traded Melancon after the allstar break to maximize his value. Pirates may have had a little more trading leverage, instead of a one year and done approach with Mark’s contract up for 2016. Also, we will have to do this all over again for Watson after 2017?

      • Speaking of Watson, how poor of an idea is it to go into the season with Watson as your closer and not much behind him (at present at least) with the acknowledged volatility of relievers?)

    • I dont totally buy that its a buyers market yet. Last year, SD wanted an absolute ton of Kimbrel and no team even took it seriously. If they come near valuing him that high again, teams will pass and move on.

      You’ve got 3 elite closers on the market supposedly, but im skeptical all 3 are seriously shopped and that all 3 are only demanding good to great returns.

      If anything, i think the thing in Mark’s favor is that PGH wont ask for insane returns. SD may want 2 top 100 prospects (thats insane) while PGH will kindly take 1 top 100 prospect and a filler.

  • I hope I’m wrong but I definitely would like to see Melancon/Watson for one more year. Yes the FO does have credibility but I doubt they can match this duo. Remember they plugged in a lot of duds as relievers over the past three years but this combination is solid. Melancon will cost around $10 million so what it’s not my money.

    • You may choose to remember the duds in the pen, but I choose to remember the studs. And as Tim pointed out, lots more of the latter than the former.

      Sell high, but low! Words to build a sustainably competitive franchise on.

      • My goodness, you’re *intentionally* only focusing on successes? That explains so, so much.

        • And you proclaim to know better than the people who have put together a 98 win team. That explains so, so much, too.

        • Even if you focus on each side (as we should), its really really clear the successes greatly outweigh the failures. Without knowing any potential trade partners or rumors etc, its well beyond time to trust the FO in moves with relievers.

          They wont hit on every move, but their track record gives fans plenty of reason to trust them until they start making poor move on a regular basis.

  • Tim, I agree with the approach and the article… I’m all on board with their approach. However, with Melancon primarily throwing a cutter: is it possible he turns into Rivera long term? And, if he did, and considering Pirates’ overall strategy- would they ever consider a reliever to warrant a higher % of payroll?

    • I’ve thought about this myself, and I’m all about trading him when his value is high, but I can’t help but wonder if melancon is the type of reliever who may actually age well, throwing that cutter…I don’t think it warrants keeping him at 10% of your payroll, but I could see him as being the type of closer who could still be effective later in his career. The flip side of that is look at how he struggled early on with the velocity drop this season…his will be a career I’ll be watching with interest (and, barring a trade to another NL central team, tooting for, as he always seemed like a humble, grounded guy) regardless of where he ends up.

    • Rivera is a rare breed — the type of reliever that remains constantly good over the long run. I’d hesitate to compare anyone to him.

      • IF they were to keep him for one reason or another, would they be able to QO him and get a pick? How’s that compare to trade value?

        • They could. And I think they’d get a pick, since he’d be due for a big deal after another strong season. That impacts the trade value, since a team would have to upgrade over that future compensation pick. Not to mention the one year of Melancon that came with it.

  • This is the one area of the team Pirates fans should have complete faith in Pirates FO. They have proven they can put together a dominant bullpen year after year after year. And I’m as certain as I can be about anything in sports that they’ll do it again next year.

  • “But the reality is that all relievers are volatile”

    Yes, and it works both ways. The difference is your coming off a season where you won 90+, not lost 90+.

    Look I understand the economics, and I myself thought Melancon was done 7 months ago. But to just expect to keep hitting on low risk, high value moves….Christ, at least hedge your bet and keep Soria then.

    • I heard they wanted the Korean Closer maybe another low risk high reward option. Also if they scout right these pick ups are less like gambling and more like fish in a barrel

    • I’d argue the reason they keep hitting on low risk, high value moves is because they make a lot of them. They also seem to know what to look for. The consistent results suggest it’s more than good fortune.

    • I can assure you the Pirates have a plan and it has contingencies to it depending on what happens with Melancon. I am also certain they know what to look for in a RP, and how to bring out the best in them, too.

      At what point do you realize this isn’t just luck?

      • It’s incredible, really. We’re to the point specific teams and players have yet to be identified or even discussed and people are convinced they are going to make the correct move.

        And nowhere did I say they were just *lucky* with moves in the past. I just believe more and more people are putting the cart ahead of the horse.

  • Saw Cashman said he’d move Miller in a deal for Steasburgh, could the pirates get that type of return for Melancon? Id do that un a heart beat, even if it meant adding a spec to go with Melancon.

    • Cashman might do it, but WSH never would. Its insanely rare, if its ever happened, to have a closer (even a fantastic one) go for a current ML SP with multiple years of control left.

    • Yeah, I’m sure he would. And I’d sell my car for a hundred grand too.

  • Excellent article as always Tim! I’ll be sorry to see “Mark the Shark” go but the Pirates do need to be smart about it and hopefully they can see a return of a top 50 prospect as was discussed previously. I wonder if there is any possibility they could trade Mark & Pedro together and somehow increase the return for the Big Bull. I suspect that if he were to go to the AL and played as a DH only, he would hit at least 30 HRs. That would justify a salary of 8 million based on WAR I assume. Would be disappointing to see Pedro non-tendered and the Pirates get nothing for a former No. 2 overall draft choice. In retrospect, Pedro’s trade value was at its peak after the 2013 NLDS against St Louis. But who was to imagine (I am sure not even Pedro did) that his defense would decline so dramatically. It is not for want of trying, and if Pedro does go somewhere else, one can only wish him success!

    • The Pirates could get more for Melancon without Pedro. The Pirates would have to down grade their Melancon trade if Pedro was included. He’s not worth that much, even as a DH.

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