The long-rumored trade between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Red Sox that would send Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan to Boston has been completed. Hanrahan and infielder Brock Holt will be sent to the Red Sox, and in return, Pittsburgh will receive pitcher Stolmy Pimental, reliever Mark Melancon, outfielder Jerry Sands, and shortstop Ivan DeJesus Jr.
In case you missed it, on Monday I wrote about the potential Hanrahan trade and the Pirates signing of Francisco Liriano, noting that it was a step in the right direction for the franchise. Knowing all the particulars involved now, my opinion hasn't changed in the slightest. Pittsburgh essentially punted one year of control with Hanrahan for four in Melancon, and Hanrahan will make more in 2013 than Melancon could potentially make over the next four seasons if he's used as a middle reliever in Pittsburgh. Melancon is also four and a half years younger than Hanrahan, and actually contributed more value in 2012 than the former Pirates closer.
There were some major red flags in Hanrahan's 2012 season that would make me wary of paying him $6 million plus in 2013. After a two win 2011 season, Hanrahan's walk rate more than doubled in 2012, and his strikeout rate didn't rise enough to put his strikeout to walk ratio above 2.00. Hanrahan also saw a massive spike in his homer rate, due to his unsustainable 1.9% HR/FB rate from 2011 jumping to a more reasonable (although slightly high) 12.5% mark in 2012. To put that in perspective, the league average last year was 11.3%, so while Hanrahan was a little high last season, it wasn't completely fluky like his 2011 number. Hanrahan also benefited from a near 90% strand rate and .225 BABIP, keeping his ERA low at 2.72, compared to a 4.45 FIP. His fastball velocity also fell by over one mile per hour from 2011, and his groundball rate plummeted from 52.4% to 38.7%.
If you look strictly at Melancon's 6.20 ERA, you're probably going to be confused as to why the Pirates would have wanted him in this trade. Well, that ERA was exacerbated by homer rate in the exact opposite way that Hanrahan's ERA was influenced by homer rate. 22.2% of flyballs that Melancon allowed in 2012 left the park, the third highest mark of any pitcher in baseball with at least 40 innings pitched. Futhermore, of the eight homers he allowed all season, five came in a three game stretch in April. If you discount those five homers in 1 2/3 innings, Melancon's homer rate drops from 1.60 per nine innings to 0.62 per nine innings, and his ERA drops by nearly two full runs to 4.36. I'm absolutely not saying that Melancon is a sure thing, but he struck out 41 batters while walking just 12 in 45 innings this past season, and had a 50.0% groundball rate. If you cut out those early season homer problems, he really didn't have a bad year by any stretch of the imagination.
People are immediately going to look at this trade and lament that the Pirates are once again selling off players and beginning another fire sale. Well, with Jason Grilli in the fold for the next two seasons, the Pirates had no need for Hanrahan. Just because a reliever has name value as a closer doesn't mean they're necessarily an effective pitcher. Jose Valverde led baseball in saves in 2011, and he can't find a job this winter. Rafael Soriano has two 40 save seasons in the last three years, and no one wants to give him the king's ranson he's demanding. The best reliever in baseball is a 24-year old who isn't even in his arbitration years yet. Some teams are getting smart about how they build their bullpens. And yet, there are still teams like the Red Sox, who have essentially traded eight players over the last two winters for Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, with one year of Mark Melancon in the mix too. For every move like the signings of Koji Uehara and Alfredo Aceves signing made to strengthen the Boston bullpen, there are trades like those three that have raised more questions about what exactly Ben Cherrington is doing with the back-end of his bullpen.