The first trade of the tenure of new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington came and went last week with relatively little fanfare. The Sox added a late-innings reliever (precise role TBD) in Mark Melancon, a pitcher whose profile as a closer remained obscure despite a very good season given that his first taste of the role occurred last year for an Astros team that won just 56 games.
On its surface, the Sox acquired a reliever -- a right-hander with a funky delivery who may or may not be the team’s closer next year -- in exchange for a right-hander (Kyle Weiland) who is viewed as either a back-of-the-rotation starter or a late-innings reliever and an infielder (Jed Lowrie) with a significant offensive ceiling but whose inability to stay healthy (and, in turn, to remain on the field or sustain lengthy stretches of production) had left him without a defined position for the Sox.
In a vaccum, if Weiland emerges as a solid starter for the next six years for the Astros or if Lowrie remains healthy and becomes an everyday shortstop for the next three years in Houston, then it will be easy to conclude that, no matter how good Melancon is, the Astros got the better of the deal. After all, a reliever who works 60-80 innings per year is less valuable to a team than a 180-200 innings a year pitcher or a starter at a premium position.
The Astros aren’t a team that needs to tinker. They were a horrible team that needs big pieces; they are a better team for having exchanged a reliever for regulars.
But that doesn’t make it a bad deal for the Red Sox. Quite the contrary.
The Sox are a team that needs to fight to get better at the margins. If they had been one win better in 2011, after all, their season would have gone on for at least one more day. Melancon’s impact on the 2012 Sox exceeds, in all likelihood, what either Weiland (who was slated to open the year in Triple-A) or Lowrie (a role player whose role was dwindling steadily) was going to offer.
But in many ways, even that doesn’t explain what the Sox accomplished.
Not only did the Sox address an area of need in acquiring a late-innings reliever, but they did so for a pitcher who allows the team complete flexibility in terms of what they do with the rest of their offseason and who, in some respects, appears to be a bargain. Melancon will make little more than the big league minimum in 2012, a reflection of the fact that the 26-year-old is not yet arbitration eligible.
The Sox have limited financial flexibility this offseason. But they acquired an impact reliever without doing anything to diminish that. If they had, say, $10 million left to spend before signing Melancon (and essentially swapping salaries by shedding Lowrie and signing Nick Punto), they still have roughly that much after acquiring him.
As for the player cost, it’s limited. The Sox did not sacrifice any of their true blue chip prospects. Make no mistake, the team likes Weiland, but even as he elevated his prospect profile, he was always viewed as a potentially complementary player rather than a part of its core. Lowrie’s window to establish himself as an everyday player in Boston was nearly shut.
That being the case, one of the striking things about the deal was the fact that Melancon -- who remains under team control for five seasons before he reaches free-agent eligibility after the 2016 season -- came at what appears to have been a much more modest cost than a pitcher with his profile might have fetched midseason. During the 2011 season, for instance, the Rangers acquired right-hander Mike Adams in exchange for Joe Wieland and Robbie Erlin.
Adams is one of the top right-handed relievers in the game. He had a 1.13 ERA at the time of his trade, and produced a 2.10 mark in 27 games with the Rangers.
Yet the Rangers will have the right-hander only through next season before he becomes eligible for free agency. In exchange for one and a half years of Adams, the Rangers gave up two prospects in Wieland and Erlin who are viewed as possible mid-rotation starting pitchers in the majors. Put another way: Both Wieland and Erlin would have more value on the trade market than either of the players whom the Red Sox dealt. Yet the Sox got a reliever whom they expect to be a very good late-innings arm, perhaps even their closer, for the next five years.
Interestingly, the Sox do not appear to be alone in having acquired a standout reliever at a relatively low cost this winter.
The Blue Jays acquired closer Sergio Santos, who is under contract for the next six years, from the rebuilding White Sox in exchange for Double-A pitcher Nestor Molina. The Santos trade shocked officials of several clubs, both because Chicago did not shop Santos more widely, and because the White Sox got only one prospect back (a pitcher in Molina whom many consider to be anything between a bullpen arm and a mid-rotation starter).
The Padres picked up closer Huston Street from the Rockies -- who were trying to shed payroll -- in exchange for non-prospect Nick Schmidt. The Sox got five years of Melancon for two players who were replaceable.
In all three cases, a number of executives felt that the trade return on relievers had not been as high as it might have been in the middle of the season.
“If you take a look at the offseason closer deals over the last decade or so, outside of [the Astros picking up Michael Bourne in exchange for Brad Lidge before the 2008 season], you’re not going to find a particularly good return out there,” one talent evaluator noted in an email. “Closers are valuable in-season, when there are emotions attached to the possibility of losing games night in and night out. That’s when teams feel like they HAVE to have that guy. Not in the offseason, when every other hard throwing reliever on their roster looks perfectly fine in the ninth inning on paper.”
Or, viewed from another angle: Jeff Bagwell-for-Larry Anderson happened in the heat of a pennant race. So did Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe-for-Heathcliff Slocumb. Historically bad trades for relievers have happened during seasons. There are few comparable examples of such lopsided deals or relievers in the offseason.
That, in turn, explains why some teams may choose to hold on to their relievers until the middle of the season unless they are blown away by offers this winter. Teams that have dominant, affordable relievers (the Cubs with Sean Marshall; the A’s with Andrew Bailey; the Pirates with Joel Hanrahan) would, of course, listen to hear if another team wanted to blow them away with a prospect offer.
However, there is something to be said for taking the calculated gamble of bringing the pitcher into the season, waiting for injuries and underperformance to put roughly 95 percent of contending teams in a position where they’re looking to upgrade their bullpens and then make a deal with a trade partner who is staring down the barrel of the July 31 deadline.
The Astros’ motivation for making a deal now is understandable. Houston needs to fill multiple holes. If Lowrie can prove he’s healthy for half a season, then he either could assert himself as an up-the-middle contributor with the Astros or get flipped later this year to address even more roster holes. Weiland will have a chance to be a starter for them. In the meantime, the Astros have a legitimate big-leaguer at one of the most important positions on the field, something they could not say prior to the trade.
Still, the acquisition cost of Melancon was not enough to make Boston blink before completing the deal. If Melancon is as good as the Sox suspect, then even if Lowrie or Weiland flourish in Houston, the Sox will consider the cost a fair one based on the available information at the time of the deal.
So how good is Melancon? That question has been probed with varying conclusions, most of which have been derived from whether evaluators believe the right-hander can close for the Sox.
Of course, that might not be the right prism through which to evaluate the right-hander. As Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal underscores in this article, it is likely more important for the Sox to find ways of replacing Daniel Bard’s late-innings work than Jonathan Papelbon’s. Even so, setting aside the question of whether a closer or a more flexible late-innings reliever is more valuable, it is worth noting that Melancon is viewed widely as an excellent pickup for the Sox bullpen.
One NL talent evaluator who had no involvement with the trade raved about Melancon, and suggested that those who are dismissing his ability to close in the AL East are underestimating the right-hander, who was 20 for 24 in save opportunities for the Astros in 2011, his first full season in the majors.
"Who exactly are the closers in the AL East that are so dominant outside of Mariano [Rivera]? The Rays use Kyle Farnsworth for crying out loud," the evaluator noted. "Obviously, I really like Melancon and it is certainly possible he can't do it, but I don't understand simply dismissing it out of hand. The guy has great stuff, a strong pedigree, has developed and had an outstanding year last year.”
While acknowledging that his fastball can be straight, the evaluator noted that Melancon had outstanding groundball rates (2.44 groundball-to-flyball rate) because the 6-foot-2 right-hander uses his long limbs and an atypical delivery to create a steep plane from a high slot. When he works down in the strike zone, it thus becomes difficult for opposing hitters to get the ball in the air against him. The evaluator also noted that Melancon's hard (90-93 mph) cutter further contributed to his groundball rates.
Moreover, despite the fact that he played 81 games in a home run friendly park (Houston pitchers allowed 29 percent more homers at home than on the road), Melancon allowed just five homers in 74 1/3 innings, another promising sign for the kind of contact that his stuff produces.
In other words, Melancon’s ability to get a solid swing-and-miss rate (slightly above major league average) as well as a high groundball rate suggests a pitcher who profiles, at least, as someone who can succeed in the AL East. By the end of this year, it will become apparent whether that profile translates to results.
For now, however, what is known is that the cost of Melancon was something that seemed well within reason for the Sox. In some respects, the Sox found a perfectly timed opportunity to begin the process of reinforcing their pitching staff.