The Pirates made their first trade around the deadline today, dealing Mark Melancon to the Washington Nationals for left-handed reliever Felipe Rivero, and left-handed starting pitching prospect Taylor Hearn. After the trade, Neal Huntington met with the media via conference call, discussing the many aspects of the deal. He started by talking about what a difficult decision it was to deal Melancon.
“We’re here to talk about a very difficult decision today, given the person Mark Melancon is,” Huntington said. “He’s poured his heart and soul into this organization, and obviously he’s done tremendous work for us on the field. In December of 2012, we traded an All-Star closer for a young, unproven Major League reliever. Our goal in this move is to continue that chain of quality production. Felipe Rivero we’ve got this year and five more years for potential contribution. And Taylor Hearn, if everything comes together the way we believe it will, we’ve got six years of potential contribution from a very talented left-handed arm.”
I probably don’t have to mention that the All-Star closer they traded in 2012 was Joel Hanrahan, with Mark Melancon being the unproven Major League reliever in that deal. If this deal works out in the same manner, it would be a great one for the Pirates. Here is a rundown of Huntington’s comments on the deal.
Rivero Joins the Late Inning Mix
Huntington said that Tony Watson would take over as the new closer, with Neftali Feliz moving to the 8th inning role and closing when Watson needs a break. Felipe Rivero would take over as the 7th inning guy.
“We believe Rivero can plug right in to a high leverage role in our bullpen,” Huntington said.
The Pirates saw Rivero throw three shutout innings against them last week in their 18 inning game against the Nationals. Rivero has been used in multi-inning appearances, and should give the Pirates another multi-inning option in the middle innings, pairing well with Juan Nicasio. Rivero has also started in the past, but Huntington said their plan is to use him as a reliever.
As for the long-term, Huntington did invoke the Hanrahan/Melancon trade in his opening statement. So does that mean they see Rivero as a future closer?
“It’s always hard to label somebody a closer,” Huntington said. “Most people didn’t label Mark Melancon a closer when we traded for him. Most people didn’t label Jason Grilli a closer when we signed him as a free agent after he was released by Philadelphia. Most people didn’t label Joel Hanrahan as a closer when we traded for him. My guess is if you go back before Matt Capps, most people probably didn’t label Matt Capps a closer when he was drafted and was coming through the Pirates’ system. That label was earned. Do we see quality stuff, strikes, swing and miss, things that late inning reliever have? Yes we do, and that’s very intriguing to us.”
One big question is why the Pirates felt the need to make this move now, with their current position in the standings, rather than in the off-season, when there were so many rumors involving Melancon. Huntington said the goal in the off-season was to compete for the division. They have the same goal now, although their chances have greatly changed.
“We sit here today with an intent to win a division, but the reality is wins and losses that have been banked so far this year — in December and November they hadn’t been,” Huntington said. “In December and November, there was different elements to the construct of the deal. Different elements to the construct of the varying components of the deal that were weighed in the decision making process.”
The Other Long-Term Upside to the Deal
Rivero provides some long-term upside as a power lefty and a late inning reliever that the Pirates will have for five more seasons beyond 2016. But the long-term part of this deal looks even better with the addition of Taylor Hearn, who is also a power lefty with the potential to start. There were reports that Hearn touched 100 MPH, but Huntington noted that Pirates scouts didn’t see that. They did see him sitting comfortably in the 93-97 MPH range, occasionally hitting 98.
Hearn was out for over two months with a broken foot, and returned to the Nationals in a bullpen role, working in long relief. He entered the year as a starter, and only moved to the bullpen as part of his rehab, to ease him back in to starting.
“The Nationals were in the process of using him in a protected role in the bullpen, building him up,” Huntington said. “He injured his foot earlier in the season, and we will continue that plan. We do see starter traits in Taylor, but we need to connect to him, understand where he is in his program [and] his process, and we will look to continue to build his pitches and get him in a role that he believes he’s comfortable with, and we believe we can maximize his potential.”
Huntington did say that they expected to get Hearn stretched out as a starter, although there’s no timetable for that to happen. He will go to West Virginia, a team he has not seen yet this year. He did face Morgantown last year in the lower levels, giving up two runs on five hits in 4.1 innings, with a walk and four strikeouts (Kevin Newman had an RBI single off of him, obviously).
As for his secondary stuff and abilities, Huntington said the Pirates’ scouts liked what they saw.
“We see a loose arm, a good athlete, a man that shows some feel on the mound,” Huntington said. “We see flashes of a really good breaking ball, flashes of really quality hand speed, which is the key to a good changeup. We’ll get our hands on him. We’ll get a feel for what they’ve worked with him on, and where he’s making progress, and if there are some areas we can help him with.”
The Pirates typically have a no-touch policy for new prospects, where they evaluate them only before making adjustments to their game. The earliest I’d expect any adjustments with Hearn would be during the Fall Instructional League, or maybe even Spring Training next year.
The Reaction in the Clubhouse
One big concern with making a move like this is the reaction in the clubhouse. The Pirates aren’t the strongest contenders, and they are still trying to contend after this move. But a lot of this move was made with an eye to the future, rather than going all-in on the current season.
“We continue to push forward to be one of the five playoff clubs at the end of the season, and in the interim we’ll strengthen ’17 and ’18,” Huntington said. “We dealt from an area of strength, and strengthened our future, without changing our goals and our intent this season.”
So how might that impact the other players in the clubhouse, who are currently contending for 2016?
“Players that are focused on today, and focused on winning tonight’s game may not understand that moving Mark Melancon is the right decision for an organization,” Huntington said. “We certainly respect and appreciate that. We also anticipate that we just saw Rivero throw 100 MPH over three innings not too long ago in Washington. They understand the quality of this young man’s arm [and] stuff. Our guys believe in Tony Watson and Neftali Feliz, and what they’ve seen out of [them] this year, and we believe that they understand we just added a quality arm that we can continue to roll forward with.”
Any reactions about trading Melancon might be altered by Monday night. The Pirates were rumored to be looking to add a starting pitcher after the Melancon deal was finished. Huntington discussed their ability to add players, even after they traded a player away.
“We are still working phones, and still working back channels, and still working through the process to see if there is something that we can add to this group that complements this group,” Huntington said. “And that pushes us to being one of those five teams that makes the post-season.”
The Pirates saved some money in this deal, which could allow them to take on some additional salary. Huntington didn’t discuss that potential, instead saying that the focus was on the return they got in the deal.
“The focus of the deal was the return we got,” Huntington said. “We really liked the return that we got for two months of Mark. As good as he is, as productive as he’s been and will be for the next two months, we liked the return. … If there’s something out there that makes sense for us, absolutely. The bottom line is, much like what drove this deal, what is the return and the future impact, and the current impact?”