Since Kansas City bulldozed their way through the playoffs last year, in part because of their terrific bullpen, it’s been speculated that the best way to win in the playoffs is to have a terrific bullpen. This is probably true in part, because in the playoffs the bullpen is typically more quickly activated and better relievers are used in more situations with closers getting longer save opportunities and set-up men pitching an inning or two earlier, all in the hope of preserving a lead or mounting a comeback if the game is still winnable. Some of that though, is probably an overreaction to one team finding success. A lot of speculation in Pittsburgh is that the Pirates are looking to move closer Mark Melancon, who has one year of arbitration left before he becomes a free agent. Mark Melancon endured a tumultuous start to the 2015 season, with numerous calls for him to lose his job in the opening weeks. In March and April he pitched 10.1 innings and had a 5.23 ERA/4.20 FIP/3.65 xFIP. His strikeout rate had plummeted to 6.10 k/9 and his walk rate had jumped to 3.49 BB/9. Those drop-offs came after a season in which he struck out 9 per nine innings and walked just 1.39 per nine. A lot of this was due to a sharp decline in velocity. In 2014 Melancon’s cutter averaged 92.82 mph. In the first two months of 2015 he struggled to crack 90, averaging 89.33 in April and then 90.43 in May. That velocity eventually clawed closer to his career norm, and Melancon’s final average for the season was 91.25, about 1.5 mph slower than usual. His strikeout rate bore the brunt of that decrease, dropping from 9 k/9 to 7.28 k/9. His final numbers for the season though, indicate that he adjusted well enough to the decrease in velocity and was able to generate enough weak contact to keep the ball in the park and mostly on the ground. His groundball rate stayed virtually the same, at 57.5%. He finished the year with a 2.23 ERA/2.82 FIP/3.07 xFIP. By baseballprospectus’ newer Deserved Run Average, he had 2.90, which is almost in line with his FIP. All of this is a long winded attempt at suggesting that although Melancon struggled early last season, he’s converted himself into a different type of pitcher. One who strikes out less batters, but still pitches effectively enough at the back end of a bullpen to be considered one of the league’s better closers. Expecting a return to the Melancon of 2015 would depend on a probably unlikely resurgence in velocity though.
Looking forward to 2016, two publicly available projection systems have given their prognostications for Melancon, and each see a valuable relief pitcher, if one that is less valuable than in years past. Steamer has Melancon projected for the following line:
65 IP, 7.96 k/9, 2.09 BB/9, .297 BABIP, 2.82 ERA, 3.02 FIP, 0.8 WAR
ZIPS, another projection system at fangraphs, has Melancon doing slightly better:
68 IP, 8.47 k/9, 1.59 BB/9, .277 BABIP, 2.51 ERA, 2.82 FIP, 1.3 WAR.
The projected resurgence in his strikeout rate makes ZIPS the more optimistic of the two, but each project a less effective Melancon than in years past. Some of that is likely due to his BABIP regressing; some of it is certainly due to the high attrition rates of relievers. Barring injury, both projection systems forecast Melancon to be a reliever that fits in nicely in any bullpen in the league. If the Pirates enter next season with Melancon as the closer, they should be in fine shape, barring any more velocity decrease, injury, or general sudden reliever ineffectiveness.
If the Pirates choose not to trade Melancon, who is a free agent after the season, they could always offer him a qualifying offer as he leaves, in which case he could accept a one year, roughly 16 million dollar contract or turn it down and become a free agent who would cost a team signing him a draft pick. But the Pirates almost certainly won’t offer Melancon a one-year deal worth that much money, because precedent suggests that they won’t. After 2013 they didn’t offer A.J. Burnett, then a more valuable player than Melancon is now, a qualifying offer that would have cost about 14.1 million. The qualifying offer system has been in place since 2012, and in that time only one team has offered a reliever a qualifying offer – the Yankees, who did it twice. So it seems unlikely that if the Pirates choose not to deal Melancon they’ll be getting anything back in the form of a draft pick after this season. If they were to trade him before the season started though, part of his value is that the team acquiring him could offer him a qualifying offer if he performed well enough. If they trade him at midseason, that’s no longer a factor.
After ruling out a qualifying offer, the debate turns to this: is approximately one projected win of present value from Melancon at the cost of around 10 million dollars (per mlbtraderumors arbitration tracker) worth more than trading Melancon, sending that value to another team in return for future value, and saving the money to spend elsewhere (assuming it is spent elsewhere. The Pirates rotation is looking mighty thin right now). If you were to take Melancon’s projected arbitration salary from the Pirates projected payroll, you end up with somewhere between 77 million and 85 million, depending on how much the Dodgers are paying the Pirates for Mike Morse (and possibly how much the Marlins paid the Dodgers for Mike Morse. Mike Morse is indirectly having his salary paid by three separate teams right now). It seems safe to assume the Pirates aren’t paying Morse very much, so that number is probably closer to 77 million, again, having already removed Melancon. That’s more than enough for the Pirates to sign virtually any player remaining on the free agent market and still have a payroll under 100 million dollars. They likely won’t spend that much, either. They do have some spots they have to fill, adding another left handed reliever in the bullpen is probably a priority, especially if Tony Watson replaces Melancon as the closer. Based on the return the Reds got for Aroldis Chapman, who had one year (maybe) to go before he becomes a free agent, the Pirates wouldn’t get much back for Melancon. But then again, the Chapman deal is probably a terrible baseline for a Melancon deal, because Chapman has the specter of domestic violence over him, which could, and if the situation is as clear as it has been made out to be – should, lead to a suspension before he ever pitches for the Yankees. So if the Reds were still able to get value, however limited, from Chapman and his 12.9 million dollar projected salary while he has a domestic violence investigation hanging over his head, it seems a given that the Pirates would be able to get value for Melancon and his 10 million dollar projected salary, even if he isn’t a reliever in quite the same class as Chapman. Of course, that value likely won’t be what fans expect or want, but it doesn’t matter what fans want. They didn’t want the Pirates to trade Joel Hanrahan (and to be fair, Brock Holt) for Mark Melancon and a few others. As soon as Melancon started pitching well, people forgot about Joel Hanrahan.* It’s probably unlikely that the Pirates will be able to convince a team to hand over three years of a down on his luck reliever who has clear indications that he can bounce back for one year of Melancon, but the Pirates will explore all the options, and if they make a move, it seems likely they’ll get some value in return.
*Ok so I twitter searched “Hanrahan Pirates” and it turns out a small but dedicated group of fans still think that was a mistake and don’t want the Pirates to repeat a similar trade. So good on them I guess, for sticking by their convictions three years later.
The final piece of the puzzle is to find a potential match for a Melancon trade. It’s a pointless exercise to speculate on a trade itself. There are too many variables in play and it would just be blind guessing. Instead, simply listing the teams that could use bullpen help and might have the payroll space to acquire Melancon seems like a more useful exercise. So here is that, with every team that might be interested listed, so there are certainly more teams listed an actually are interested:
Miami Marlins – They made a run at Chapman before he was traded to New York, so they have an established interest in relief.
Chicago Cubs – This fit is a stretch, but not impossible.
Arizona Diamondbacks – They’re gearing up for a run, and their bullpen is probably not a strength. Payroll could be an issue.
Los Angeles Dodgers – The Dodgers also came close to acquiring Chapman. This might be the best fit of them all.
Toronto Blue Jays – It seems unlikely that they would have the payroll room, but they’ve been linked to late inning relievers a few times in the last year. They dodged a bullet on Papelbon.
Any other team – Reliever markets are tricky to predict, because any team can decide they want to improve the back half of their bullpen. Is Houston done acquiring relievers after the Ken Giles trade? I don’t know. Are the Angels out of money for the bullpen? No idea. Are the Rockies following any sort of a plan? I doubt it. There are about 10 other teams that could be looking for a back of the bullpen pitcher, but are probably waiting to see how the offseason develops. As it is, it appears that’s what the Pirates are content to do. Wait and see how the Melancon market develops over the course of the offseason before making a move. And perhaps that’s the right move, but it likely won’t be clear until the offseason is over, so as usual, withholding judgment is probably the right decision for now.