On June 30, 2009, the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired a reliever who had lost the closer’s job with the Washington Nationals, posting a 7.71 ERA in the season’s first three months.
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His name was Joel Hanrahan, and he not only showed immediate improvement in Pittsburgh, but re-emerged as a closer who went 76-for-84 in save chances the past two seasons.
The Pirates see similarities in Mark Melancon, the most experienced of the four players they acquired from the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday for Hanrahan.
The Red Sox, seeking greater certainty in the closer’s role, made an understandable decision in acquiring Hanrahan and infielder Brock Holt for Melancon, pitcher Stolmy Pimentel, outfielder Jerry Sands and infielder Ivan DeJesus Jr.
Hanrahan, 31, will be the Sox’s new closer, reducing oft-injured Andrew Bailey to a setup role and giving the team a variety of right-handed options in the bullpen. But no one should be surprised if Melancon offers comparable value, and not simply because he is under club control for four more years while Hanrahan is under control for just one.
Melancon, 27, had a strong season with the Astros in 2011, converting 20 of 25 save chances and producing a 2.78 ERA. But he was a mess last season, at least in April, after the Red Sox acquired him for shortstop Jed Lowrie and right-hander Kyle Weiland. (Think that trade was a dud? The acquisition of Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney for outfielder Josh Reddick and two prospects turned out even worse.)
The heightened expectations may have bothered Melancon. Differences with former manager Bobby Valentine may have contributed to his uneasiness. Whatever, Melancon earned a minor-league demotion after just four appearances. He returned in June and pitched better the rest of the season, but mostly in low-pressure situations.
Now Melancon will join righty Jared Hughes and lefty Tony Watson as the setup men for Hanrahan’s replacement, righty Jason Grilli. A bounce-back season certainly appears within reach — Melancon is getting a fresh start, moving to the more pitcher-friendly league and joining one of the game’s most upbeat managers, Clint Hurdle.
Maybe Melancon will prove nothing more than a fungible reliever. Maybe Hanrahan will recover from the spike in his walk rate last season; the Sox believe an inconsistent workload contributed to his problems, and Hanrahan told Boston reporters that he also had issues with his hamstring and ankle.
Still, the Pirates’ end of this is quite logical.
Hanrahan projects to earn almost $7 million in arbitration, then become a free agent. The Pirates redirected most of the savings to free-agent left-hander Francisco Liriano, and they still may have enough to sign a budget free agent. So, the trade is effectively a 5-for-2 and maybe even a 6-for-2.
Of course, Liriano’s mechanical issues make him a significant risk, and the other players the Pirates acquired from the Sox are less than sure things. Pimentel projects as perhaps no more than a reliever. Sands will battle a host of corner outfielders for playing time. DeJesus amounts to little more than infield depth.
In fact, the most promising of the prospects in the trade probably is Holt, the second player that the Pirates sent to Boston. Holt, 24, has an .808 OPS in four minor-league seasons. The Pirates didn’t want to trade him, but they evidently considered him more of a second baseman than a shortstop, and Holt wasn’t about to supplant Neil Walker. He figures to be a utility type with the Red Sox, protection against injuries to second baseman Dustin Pedroia or shortstop Stephen Drew.
The Red Sox needed to clear spots on their 40-man roster — hence, the 4-for-2 — but, more important, they wanted to improve the depth in their bullpen. Their options from the right side now include Hanrahan, Bailey, Koji Uehara, Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves and Clayton Mortensen. Their lefties are Craig Breslow, Andrew Miller and Franklin Morales, who could double as a spot starter.
Sensible trade for both teams. We’ll see how it plays out.