Trading Closers at their Peak
One of the most impressive things about Neal Huntington’s reign as the Pirates General Manager has been his ability to piece together a bullpen using duct tape and super glue. Since 2012, the Pirates boast the third best bullpen in baseball in terms of ERA. In doing so, they have seen their closers Joel Hanrahan, Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon post extraordinary numbers en route to All-Star appearances.
But what do you do with these players when they reach their peak?
The closer position is prone to volatility. Only six teams have the same closer in 2015 as they did in 2013. To take that a step further, only 10 closers from 2013 are closing at all. The Pirates have witnessed the same turnover with their closers. In 3+ seasons they have had three different pitchers hold the position and do so with success.
While the “proven closer” may not as valuable of a commodity as it once was, there are still teams who feel the need to find a guy who has proven he can close games. A great return was fetched when the Pirates dealt Joel Hanrahan along with utility player Brock Holt to the Red Sox following the 2012 season. Hanrahan was expendable once the Pirates best reliever and set up man in 2012, Jason Grilli, resigned with the team.
Grilli went on to have a superb 2013 season. His trade value had never been higher and the Pirates still had him under contract for another season, and like the previous year, the team’s set up man had a phenomenal season. As fate would have it, Jason Grilli had a disastrous three months and was traded for fellow embattled reliever Ernesto Frieri – a return much lighter than it could have been six months prior. Mark Melancon went on to again put up video game-like numbers as he took over the closer role.
And now here we are in 2015. Mark Melancon, possibly at peak value following 2014, is still closing games and struggling to do so. The Pirates set up man, Tony Watson, is having a stellar season. Sound familiar? To this point in the season, Melancon has blown just one save, but it’s obvious that he isn’t the same pitcher. His velocity is down and his K/9 is down to 4.68. As of May 3rd, Melancon has an ERA of 2.52, but his FIP of 3.70 and xFIP of 3.84 suggest that regression is in order. Melancon has yet to implode, but when he does Tony Watson will likely slide into the closer spot.
What could the Pirates expect in return? The demand for relievers isn’t as high as it once was, but there still are teams who will overpay. Last season, the Rangers traded reliever Joakim Soria to the Tigers in return for Baseball America’s #43 prospect, Jake Thompson and prospect Corey Knebel. During the offseason, the Nationals traded reliever Tyler Clippard in exchange for A’s infielder Yunel Escobar, who has been a productive piece for the Nationals this season.
It may seem counterproductive for a contending team to trade one of their better relievers, but relievers are fickle. When Tony Watson takes over as closer the cycle will likely continue and I will be here claiming that the Pirates should trade Watson.
Tyler Sweeney, SCB Pirate Blogger