First Pitch: Pirates Need to Find the Next Mark Melancon This Off-Season

Last week I recapped the 2016 season for the pitching staff, along with a look ahead to 2017 and beyond. The Pirates could use upgrades in both the starting rotation and the bullpen. There are some free agent options available for the starters, but not many, and no standout options. There could be some trade options if the free agents aren’t realistic. I didn’t look into the potential relievers, since there are always a big number of options available.

There’s one issue the Pirates have this off-season, and that is the issue of limited funds. I’ve written that they have money to spend — they could spend $14 M to get from their current payroll projection to $100 M, and I believe they could go over that number. So their payroll shouldn’t limit them from getting a guy like Ivan Nova and another reliever, plus maybe a reclamation type starter. But I don’t think they can go on a spending spree and find big upgrades for the rotation and bullpen.

More accurately, I think they’re going to have to go for value upgrades in the bullpen, and focus on getting the sure thing for the rotation. And that’s how it should be.

Ever since the Pirates traded Mark Melancon, there have been questions about bringing him back. I believe he would cost at least $10 M a year and would require a two or three-year commitment. That’s not a price the Pirates should be paying for a reliever, even if it’s an elite reliever like Melancon. They’d be better off putting those funds towards a starter, and I don’t think they can get the starter they need, while also getting a guy like Melancon for the bullpen.

Then there’s the idea of trading for a reliever. This would likely also cost a lot, but in terms of prospects. I think the prospects should be saved for additional rotation upgrades. If the Pirates do have prospects to trade, they should go towards adding a starter. And if they’ve got the capability to sign a free agent starter, and trade prospects for a pitcher, that pitcher should be an additional starter.

Now maybe if there’s a lower key reliever, or a bounce back candidate, then a trade would make sense. Likewise, I think the type of free agent they should go after would be a bounce back guy. The Pirates have had a lot of success over the years getting relievers who are bounce back candidates, and then watching them turn it around in Pittsburgh. You only need to go back to Melancon to see one of the most successful recent cases. A lot of Pirates fans hated the addition of Melancon when that trade happened. And yet just four years later trading him was panned, and Pirates fans want the Proven Closer™ for the 2017 bullpen and beyond. It’s that kind of irony that will probably lead to another one of these types of tweets when the Pirates eventually add a reliever this off-season:

Maybe that tweet already exists about Felipe Rivero. Or maybe Tony Watson’s down year will be a distant memory next year, and he returns to pre-2016 form. But even with those guys, and Juan Nicasio, on the roster, I think the Pirates should add someone this off-season, and I think it should be another low-key addition, just like the Melancon, Jason Grilli, Joel Hanrahan, and other moves of the past that led to bounce back relievers.

This isn’t a guarantee to work, as we’ve seen with examples like Ernesto Frieri. It’s never a guarantee with reclamation projects, whether it’s a starter or a reliever. It’s also not a guarantee to go after the “sure thing” on either side. But if the Pirates are going to go for the “sure thing”, they’d be better off investing resources in a starter. Relievers are too volatile, which is why you often see established guys having down years, and guys coming off a down year immediately turning things around. That’s why the best approach with relievers is to buy low and sell high. The Pirates sold on Melancon when he had high value. Now their task should be to find the next Melancon.

**AFL: Edgar Santana Picks Up Save in Saguaros Victory. The latest AFL report from John Dreker, with some velocity info on Edgar Santana.

**Baseball America Names Stephen Alemais Among Best Defensive Players in 2016 Draft. No surprise here, as we’ve written a lot about Alemais’ defense this year.

**2016 Bullpen Recap: Tony Watson Was a Microcosm of the Pirates’ Struggles. My recap of the bullpen from this weekend.

**Winter Leagues: Jose Osuna Hits His First Homer; Heredia Struggles Again. The latest winter league recap from John Dreker.

**Adrian Valerio Stands Out in the 2016 Bristol Pirates Top 10 Prospects. My Bristol recap from this weekend, with the top ten prospects.

  • Wonder what $$$ Daniel Hudson or Greg Holland will get. Also reclamation guys like Drew Storen, David Hernandez, or Bryan Morris could be good inexpensive finds. We could set up with Rivero and Bastardo fro left, Nicasio and FA from right and have Leblanc/Hutchison as long men. Nice balance.

  • Since Indians have Miller, what would it take to get Cody Allen? He would replace Melancon and he is young to keep around a few years.

  • No suggestions on who?

  • Okay- I see what you are saying tim- reclamation, rebound, and hope for the best……quite honestly, the upside isn’t worth the downside in my opinion. We can’t afford a TOP starter or even second tier starter in this market- not in free agency and not in a trade, but we CAN afford a top tier reliever and a reclamation starter. To me, that is better…….reduce the unknowns as much as we can. Having a barrel of question marks with high upside as our window for our current group closes, does not give us the best chance of success- at least not as far as I can see. My opinion- sign Melancon- use whatever resources we have left to address starting rotation.

  • If management is only willing to spend $100m, we will be done shortly as a playoff contender

  • Sorry to bring this up but if the pirates traded Liariano, McGuire and Ramirez for Hutchinson what would they have to give up in prospects to get a lunch pail I mean a good starter or reliever?

  • “I believe he would cost at least $10 M a year and would require a two or three-year commitment. That’s not a price the Pirates should be paying for a reliever, even if it’s an elite reliever like Melancon. They’d be better off putting those funds towards a starter…”

    Seems like the time has come to reevaluate how the Pirates prioritize the bullpen, since the rest of the game certainly has. It would have to be very situational dependent, but I’m having an awful hard time understanding how an elite reliever is a worse investment than what $10m-worth of starting pitcher buys you, which is very little.

    As bullpens have evolved, so should prioritization. The game isn’t the same as it was when Huntington took over.

    • Yes. Combine that with the fact that last year they did spend $10M on a reliever (and he performed) and that there is almost nothing available on the FA SP market this winter, and maybe 2/$20M for Melancon (or someone like him) isn’t the worst idea.

    • It’s not that they’ve got just $10 M to spend, and you can either spend that on an elite reliever or a SP that would cost $10 M. It’s that if they spend $10 M on a reliever, they can’t then spend what they’d need to get a starting pitcher who can help.

      Not to mention, there are very few elite relievers who remain elite relievers for the long haul. Investing money in elite relievers over the long-term is still a mistake to avoid.

      • “Investing money in elite relievers over the long-term is still a mistake to avoid.”

        Nobody suggested they do as much.

        I understand the tradeoff between spending on relievers vs starters, and that’s precisely why I think this needs revisited. Relievers are inherently riskier than starters, but $10m/yr doesn’t buy you a “safe” starter these days and I don’t believe the Pirates will be inclined to spend appreciably more than that on *any* one player in a given year. Percentage of payroll and whatnot.

        It’s not a simple or easy answer, but I think the game has evolved enough to revisit the bullpen dogma this organization has followed for the better part of a decade.

        • I’d agree with you that if you only had $10 M, you might want to think about investing in an elite reliever versus the type of starter you could get for $10 M.

          But I’m also not making that argument. I’m not saying they have $10 M to spend and that money needs to go to a starter. I’m saying they’ve got more than $10 M to spend and need a starter, but if they spend $10 M on a reliever, they won’t have enough for a starter.

          • No I understand that part of your argument, I’m just not sure I agree with it.

            We know almost for a fact that Huntington won’t pay a guy 20% of the payroll, and he’s cited AJ’s QO salary as a deterent due to percentage of payroll even when that only worked out to about 15%. I think there’s a limit on what they’d spend on a starter, and it’s awful close to $10m.

            I’m not sure a starter of that quality – AAV around $11-15M – is something I’d rather have than an elite reliever. Now using that same money to get two starters who exceed expectation, literally what pushed them to the top of the win curve previously, is something I’d obviously rather have but that kind of breaks down our little hypothetical here.

            • That was something I was thinking as well. I’d rather go with two reclamation guys than one $10 M reliever.

              I also decided to look up Andrew Miller compared to a guy like J.A. Happ. Miller had a lot of value for a reliever making $9 M (average of 2.45 WAR the last two years). Meanwhile, Happ had a 3.2 WAR. Liriano had a 3.6 WAR in his first year of his three year deal, so this doesn’t guarantee long-term success.

              This is also anecdotal, since we’re taking the best cases from the recent signings in those price ranges. But I do think it shows that you can find starters in the $10-15 M price range who can provide more value than an elite reliever.

              • I was actually thinking of those same guys, but I would put them in the exceeding value category. Maybe that’s splitting hairs, but I don’t think you typically get 3+ win pitchers for ~$13m. The type of $10-15m pitcher I was considering matching his value would be a guy like Mike Leake. Definitely worth the cost – 2-3 WAR consistency like his has value in this league – but I’d probably rather have the elite reliever for similar money.

                • This seems like a good idea to research for an article in January. I say January, because right now all of my time is going to formatting the Prospect Guide, and writing the season recaps.

  • If you favor a bullpen by committee approach vs. designated “closer”, can you square that with this article? Do we really need a Melancon if we close by committee? If your point is only that the Pirates find a bounce back candidate like they did Melancon, then I understand but your article seems to be based upon the premise that we need a designated closer like Melancon acquired in the same fashion as Melancon.

    • I think they need another really good reliever for the late innings. When I talk about Melancon as a good reliever, I don’t think saves. He was the same good reliever whether he pitched in the 8th inning or the 9th inning.

      I’d love to see them go with a committee approach, and I think they’re in the perfect situation for that. They don’t have a designated closer, they can use Watson’s “struggles” as a reason to keep the spot open (even though his struggles weren’t related to the closer’s role, and existed all year), and just use the best pitcher when he is needed.

      • I agree. Melancon is gone, Rivera hasn’t necessarily earned the good housekeeping seal of reliability yet, Hughes had a tough year and Watson also. Having someone solid seems pretty important for the late innings.

  • Watson will be the closer next year. If not him, someone already on the roster. The Pirates are certainly not going to add salary to the bullpen. They never do. I would be shocked if their payroll is greater than $85 million opening day of 2017

    • They spent 20% of payroll last year on the bullpen and gave bigish money to nicasio and Feliz.

  • Very peculiar, not talking about myself :)…. When I start a thread it comes up as tedwins and when folks post to the thread and I respond it still comes up as tedwins…. but if I respond to someone else’s thread it comes up as tedlosses… Who cares, back to thinking through the right moves to make us compelling in 2017, I have all the right answers, but not sharing yet 🙂 🙂

    • Then I just looked and my response to JimmyZ’s initial post was under the tedwins name…. I’m too old and tired to figure it out… off to bed….

  • Whatever ever happened to the guy (i forget his name.) from the Independent League? He pitched pretty well at the end of 2015. I think he got hurt last year.

  • The one thing working in the Pirates’ favor is the free agent class of relievers is almost the exact opposite of the options for starters. There’s premium talent available (chapman, jensen, melancon, wade davis for the right price, even Francisco Rodriguez), high leverage guys who have closed before but are not necessarily the first choice to close (sergio romo, brad ziegler, koji uehara, santiago casilla, neftali feliz, fernando rodney) and a smattering of bouce back candidates/guys who haven’t had the opportunity but could potentially excel in high leverage roles (brett cecil, drew storen, joaquin benoit, boone logan, luke hochevar, david hernandez, jason grilli, junichi tazawa, jordan walden, andrew bailey, brian matusz). Problem being that with so many relievers on the market, lots of teams need help at the back end of the bullpen. Still, have to imagine that some quality relievers will be on the market longer than expected and sign for less than expected a la david freese this past offseason.

  • I had to chuckle when I read you suggest the Pirates will be looking for “value upgrades”. When aren’t they looking for value upgrades at any position? Our GM said last year pitchers should be paying us to come here and cries about the starting pitching market in almost any interview on the topic basically intimating they won’t pay market rate for starters(AJ Burnett after 2013 season etc). Just the other day NH was trying to rationalize the idiotic Liriano trade.

    • Does every thread require a Lirianio trade comment – get over it – move on. Would you rather have his “dead money” on the books for next season? Imagine how much less Huntington can do with ~$90M to spend vs $100-105? And don’t tell me that Liriano is fixed – he and the pitching coach did not agree on the need to suck it up and throw strikes making every start of his 100 pitches in the first five or six innings and 3-4 inning of bullpen arms….

      • You have no clue what him and his pitching coach did or didn’t agree to so spare me. The larger point of the post which you seemed to miss is this team is always on the lookout for “value upgrades”. Not just in the bullpen as Tim suggests- rest assured they will be looking for a value upgrade in the rotation as well. And given the inflation in MLB it is far from a sure thing the Pirates will find much value spending 10-15M AAV for a starting pitcher based on 2017 prices.

      • Do you think the Pirates will spend 100-105m next year? Attendance declined this year.

        • There are a couple of reasons they might be willing to go over $100M….
          1. The need to show the fans the intend to be competitive. I don’t think they want attendance to go any lower – if it does they end up like Tampa Bay…
          2. They are a couple of years away from a new TV deal. Another losing season will shave millions off of that contract. And a good year next year could lead to an early rework of the current contract – and add revenue.
          3. The evidence is pretty clear – the cost of making the playoffs next year is probably closer to $120M a year than it is to $100. The Indians have the lowest payroll in the post season at ~$115M… Not spending over $100M will be a very tough sell to fans, local media and the teams who do spend and end up sharing revenue with teams like the Bucs.

          • Just because its a tough sale its still a sale this team will make to the fans. Heck they are already selling us that they are going to be hard pressed to increase much at all this off season.

            • Well in reality, the FA market is terrible this year and there minus the bullpen and maybe one starting pitcher, I don’t see much of a NEED.

              • So you are saying they are two players away from being the best team in baseball? Sounds to me like you are settling.

          • I’m a little more skeptical that you are Bruce. Your arguments make sense. But I stand by that the team will not lose money in a given year. I just don’t see the payroll going up next year. Flat at best. #1. At some point NH will be blamed and be the scapegoat, before him it will be Hurdle. #2 the local TV contract will go up win or lose. Until they realize the additional revenue they wont spend more. #3 they will point or blame baseballs unfair economics.

  • If Melancon could even come close to approximating his WPA from the last 4 years he would be well worth 10M a year. Put it this way, someone who produced like MM did based on WPA the last 4 years would most likely be worth well more than what you would get investing that money in a starting pitcher(probably lucky to get 2fwAR a season). But obviously there is no guarantee that Melancon doesn’t start to regress.

    But investing 10-15 M in a starting pitching in the 2017 FA market is far, far, far from a sure thing in its own right.

    • John, I think the key# when valuing SP vs RP is innings. A starter should get you 150-200 innings, a closer will get you 40-50 innings. Spending 10m on a RP is the equivalent of spending 25-30m on a SP.

      • While a starter will definitely throw more innings it must be remembered that a reliever such as Melancon’s innings are much higher leverage so if he is consistently good(and he was consistently excellent) those innings may be much more valuable than the 150-200 you get from a #3 starter.

        MM had about 13 WPA over the last 4 years so he averaged more than 3 wins per year by that metric. I doubt you are going to find a #3 pitcher to contribute 3 wins by fWAR.

        But the problem is there is no guarantee MM will continue to produce like that in the future.

  • Not sure entirely if this guy will continue to pitch, seems that way, but if he does would be someone I would be interested in to add depth/stability to the Buccos bullpen…. from Boston Herald…. (P.S. I get the age thing….)

    RP Koji Uehara: B-minus

    His first half was forgettable, and it looked as if the end had arrived prematurely for Uehara, but he somehow straightened himself out. He missed all of August due to an injury but was lights-out after that: 0.00 ERA and .140 batting average against over 14 outings. He was a key contributor to the bullpen’s end-of-season, life-preserving act and bought himself another year of service for somebody’s bullpen. If it won’t be with the Red Sox, fans will always have his 2013 season to look back upon fondly.

    • Boy the dead air my posts get on Uehara is deafening, suppose I should give up on my focus/affection on him being a good fit. Signed, Stubborn Tedwins 🙂 🙂

      • I wouldnt mind uehara, but my main concern is that he’d really only be a one year stop-gap and then next offseason the Bucs would potentially lose watson, uehara and nicasio.

        • maybe mate, but….he could be a two year solution which would be helpful in bridging the gap you thoughtfully mention…. but I’m obviously optimistic (unrealistic perhaps) about him and thinking he is ageless, so there is that, of course

          • Its certainly within the realm of possibilities that he has two or three good years left but nobody is rushing out to offer him a multi-year deal because of the age issue and having plenty of other options available. Then you run the risk of getting one really good year and watching him leave for a better one year deal next year. On the other hand I imagine his market will be somewhat supressed, making him a cheaper option, due to age and his first half results last season. Theres far worse plans than uehara on a one year deal plus a younger arm for two or three years.

            • Agreed, trying to figure out the right focus points/guys within natural payroll constraints, ours, is fun (well to me)…why I liked your post (above) about the long list of interesting relievers, lots of ways to peel an onion or something like that. With that said, shame on us if we don’t have one or two homegrown talents ready to become the new Watson/Hughes/Whatever in the pen at some point soon… oh well Jimmyz, not easy…..

              • Not easy, but fun is right. Completely forgot that there are in-house options like Neverauskas, Santana, whatever pitchers dont make it as starters, etc., for a minute.

                • Oh boy, highly ranked starters in Milb that didn’t cut it and off to the bullpen, now that list will blow your 2016 list of available relievers away 🙂

  • Maybe Greg Holland is the bounce back reliever. I see him taking a one year deal to get back to his elite level and then hitting it big next offseason. With Jensen, Melancon and Chapman there are 3 elite closers to get teams buying and maybe forget about Holland.

  • No way MM only gets 2/$20M. I bet he get at least 3/$35M. Washington, NYY, and the SF need a closer and the two best on the market are Chapman and MM.

    • Yup…..

    • Actually the best reliever on the market is Kenley Jansen. Chapman needs to pitch the one inning with a lead for the save. Jansen has gone 2 and 2+ several times – he paired with Kershaw for the two hit gem the other night against the Cubs so if I am a GM I rank him third and MM 2nd. But 100+ MPH pitches and lots of strikeouts is sexy…

      Jansen is likely going to be the crazy overpay – could net something like $15M for 4 or 5 years – he just turned 30…

      • Bruce, you are correct about Jansen. I knew I was missing a closer when I wrote my post. So MM is the 3rd best closer when NYY, Washington, SF, & LAD need someone. I still think he gets 3/$35M.

  • There is no starting pitcher available for even 15 million a year who is a sure thing. A three year deal that fails will lead us to throwing two more prospects away to eat salary in 18 months.

  • Just sign Melancon. TWO @$20 would be a fair price for what he can do. If this organization is unwilling to spend money then we will continue to implode as what we witnessed this past season. You look at some of the money wasted on experiments it makes you ill. Niese was a $10 million dollar guy. You wouldn’t rather have MM AT THE SAME PRICE! We continually hear the same drum beat but look at the money wasted on experiments. Sign double MM and move onto the rotation.

  • Wonder what NH’s strategy is concerning clearing roster spots? Many other teams have cleared their 40 man without much if any claimage (sp) but the Pirates haven’t done anything yet. It always seems like NH does these types of things at the opportune time to limit player loss.

    • I bet he is trying to work trades right now for Locke, Hughes, Bastardo or some combination of them.

      • I can’t imagine anyone having interest in Bastardo at this point. He has had one average year with us in his last four years. I think we are stuck with him. Harrison is a player who is better the less he is used. I think someone would take him but I doubt we get anything useful in return. As for Locke and Hughes teams who want them can wait until they are FA and sign them for a lot less then what they would pay in Arbitration. I trust NH will create a good and inexpensive bullpen, his history suggest he is very adept at that. As for the rest its going to be a struggle for sure. I am thinking the only new starter we going to see is Volquez.

        • I kinda feel like the most significant new starter would come from a trade and then add a secondary reclamation project starter to a lower cost one year deal. Im kinda curious about whether or not cliff lee still has any intention of unretiring too. If he can still throw I’d at least give him a call if I were NH.

          • Big fan of Cliff the pitcher but the way he handled his comeback last year suggested he wanted a big pay day just to show up at camp and if he didn’t feel right then he would take his money and go home. If I recall he wouldn’t even show up at camp for less then 10 million (I think it was more)

            • I’m in the same boat with you there but he also expressed a desire to play for a contender and the Pirates have a strong, young core where their biggest downfall is pitching which he could help out. Add in the fact that we’ve all heard for years the narrative that left handed pitchers theoretically should fit well in PNC park with the deep notch in the left-center power alley and its a reasonably logical fit. Plus 7 million is much better than the zero he got for his services last year. If I were Cliff I’d gladly take a one year “prove it” deal in a reasonably safe environment to reestablish value and look for a two year 25-30 million deal next offseason.

  • Tim: The Pirates unloaded salary in 2016, and if there is still a need for roster cutbacks to clear dollars, the two guys I would target for trade would be Josh Harrison ($7.5 mil) and Antonio Bastardo ($6.5 mil). That’s $14 mil.

    Cole, Taillon, and Kuhl look prepped and ready to be 1, 2, 3 in the Rotation to start 2017 with Hutchison, Glasnow, Brault, Kingham, Williams, and a few others to possibly fill the last 2 slots. After that, there will not be a need for SP’s until guys like Keller, Hinsz, Hearn, etc. start to get to AA/AAA. Therefore, lots of SP talent at AAA and AA, with nowhere to advance so trade(s) involving some of that talent along with JHAY, Bastardo, and others, could be very possible this offseason – involving an experienced SP with only a year left until FA?

    • I agree that those two players are not worth their money right now. Would the bucs really be that much worse off with a young guy at 2B v. Harrison? I don’t think so.

      • Adam Frazier has done nothing but hit off of the bench. Between him and Hansen, we should have 2 decent options to take over.

        • Frazier also seems to be a lot like Harrison though where as a part time player he plays to his strengths and does well but as a regular in the field everyday his flaws can be exposed. I agree that Harrisons money could be put to better use elsewhere but 7.5 million for a starting second baseman who is able to suit up and play a whole season, unlike neil walker, and put up decent, if unspectacular numbers, isnt unreasonable. At least not for 25 or so other teams in the league.

  • I’d like to nominate Cleveland Indian’s Brian Shaw as a “Melancon-like target”. HR problem this year even as he was missing a fair amount of bats. Good periphs otherwise. You can scroll down here for a writeup: . Not exactly sure why/if Cleveland would let him go. He’s Arb3 I think.