The Joel Hanrahan Debate – To Trade or Not To Trade?


As we pound through the salad days of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, many of the expected contenders for championship glory are experiencing major problems in the bullpen.  While it’s still pretty early for teams to label themselves buyers or sellers in this years trade deadline sweepstakes, the wheeling and dealing general managers of disappointing teams are wielding itchy trigger fingers on their Blackberries – and the owners with talent to spare are licking their chops over their potential bounty.

With complete games becoming even more of a rare bird in today’s game, the value of back-end bullpen help is at all an time high.  Closers have always been a trade deadline commodity, but this year the stakes may get even higher with many traditional big-market teams struggling to find adequate arms to finish out their games.  The New York Yankees – a team that hasn’t worried about their ninth-inning situation since the early days of the Clinton Administration – just lost future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera to a torn ACL and torn meniscus, and now find their fate resting in the hands of fifth-year setup man David Robertson.  The Boston Red Sox made a business decision in the winter to allow closer Jonathan Papelbon to leave for a four-year $50 million deal with Philadelphia, and are currently trying to rebound from a rough start with unproven RP Alfredo Aceves closing out games.  The Los Angeles Angels spent over $300 million in the offseason in a quest to overtake the Texas Rangers in the A.L. West, only to watch young closer Jordan Walden implode and turn the reigns over to veteran Scott Downs – a pitcher who has never attained more than  9 saves in any of his 11 major league seasons.  The Arizona Diamondbacks, defending N.L. West champions, are concerned over the long-term viability of J.J. Putz as their closer after he posted a 5.79 ERA in 10 appearances in 2012.  The Cincinnati Reds dished out $8.5 million for one year of closer Ryan Madson, only to see his season ended by Tommy John surgery in spring training.  Even teams such as Toronto, Baltimore, Washington, and the L.A. Dodgers – surprise contenders in their divisions – have injuries or ineffectiveness causing problems in the pen.  It would seem that the trade value for a front-line, proven, major league closer is higher than ever before.

Enter “The Hammer”.

Joel Hanrahan has become an All-Star closer since the Pirates acquired him from Washington in what now appears to be a steal of a deal in June 2009.  Besides being blessed with a mid-90’s fastball and knee-buckling slider, Hanrahan looks the part of a big league stopper.  At 6-foot 4, he has a dominating presence on the mound, an image only added to by his rapidly-trendsetting goatee and power mullet hairstyle.  Hanrahan had a 2011 season for the Pirates record books, with 40 saves and a 1.83 ERA and making his first All Star appearance.  On the heels of a 2010 campaign where he proved his worth in a set-up role with 72 appearances and 100 K’s in just 69.2 IP,there is no doubting that Joel Hanrahan has put himself on the cusp on becoming one of the best relief pitchers in Pittsburgh Pirates history.

There is also no doubt that Hanrahan would be one of the most coveted players available in the trade market should the Pirates decide to part company.  Under team control until 2014, Hanrahan is making a reasonable $4.1 million in 2012 and will be eligible for arbitration again next winter.  A repeat of his 2011 season statistically could mean a potential $7-8 million contract for the closer, a number the Pirates would have a hard time swallowing.  Although they have had ample time to negotiate a long-term deal with Hanrahan, Pirates GM Neil Huntington and his front office team yet to approach him with an offer – nor does it seem that they will any time soon.  At 30-years old and with under 350 innings on his powerful right arm, it would seem as though Hanrahan has many more years of potential All Star level seasons ahead.  On a Pirates team that flirted with contention for four months of 2011 and have yet to hit on all cylinders through a vicious schedule thus far in 2012, Hanrahan would seem to have the highest trade value on the club of players who could be available.

Although trading a known commodity is never a popular move in Pittsburgh (see McLouth, Nate), this version of the Pirates perpetual rebuilding process would seem to be targeted towards 2013-2014.  While the team is competing in a very winnable N.L. Central and playing in the first season of the dual Wild Card berth era, the Pirates reaching postseason play in 2012 would be a shocking event.  Big-time pitching talent is on its way through the minor league system, with first-round picks Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole and young phenom Luis Heredia all ticketed to reach the Steel City sometime next summer.  The farm system is beginning to develop some positional talent as well – highlighted by OF Starling Marte and Josh Bell, and the system was ranked 11th in the 2012 Organization Talent Rankings by Baseball America.  In a small market environment like Pittsburgh, stockpiling as much young, controllable talent as possible is a must.  A Hanrahan trade could bring the Pirates a much-needed future star at shortstop or catcher, as well as help to continue building pitching depth.  While a mid-season deal would inevitably bring a backlash of fan hatred (“We get ONE bobblehead in 2012, and it’s the guy we TRADED?  Typical Pirates….when does football season start?”), it would be a tough proposition for Neil Huntington to pass up an offer that included a plug-and-play shortstop prospect, a major league ready starting pitcher, and a package of prospects for Hanrahan and another value-balancing trade chip (Garrett Jones, perhaps?).

Taking a quick look at the potential suitors for Joel Hanrahan becomes intriguing when you take into account the type of players who could come in return.

New York Yankees – The Yankees bullpen situation was in a tough spot before losing the greatest closer of all time to a season-ending ACL injury.  New closer RHP David Robertson was the most effective set-up man on the staff, and moving him to the ninth leaves a big gap to fill.  Depending on how Robertson does in his new role, the Yanks could be in the market for Hanrahan in either eighth or ninth inning capacity.  If Robertson struggles with the pressure that comes with a high-pressure job in NYC, the Bucs may be able to pry away a top-notch prospect.  This is the team that traded away #1 overall prospect C Jesus Montero to Seattle this past winter for one-year wonder SP Michael Pineda.  The Yankees have another top-rated catching prospect currently playing at Class A-Charleston in 19 year-old Gary Sanchez.  Ranked as the fourth best prospect in their organization, Sanchez is a rare five-tool catcher who is developing quickly and could be less than two seasons away from the majors.  A deal based around Sanchez could also include 19-year old SS prospect Cito Culver.  New York has several top-notch pitching prospects in Manny Banuelos (#29 prospect in baseball by Baseball America), Jose Campos, and Mark Montgomery.

Boston Red Sox – The Red Sox are in dire need of bullpen help, as they seem very reluctant to move current SP Daniel Bard out of the rotation.  In past years, Boston was very willing to part with top-ranked prospects to secure big league help, but seem to be moving away from that philosophy.  Sitting at 12-16 currently and already 6.5 games out of first place in the ultra-competitive A.L. East, the BoSox could have their hand forced into making some heavy moves this summer.  After moving so many of their prospects from 2004-2011, the current farm system doesn’t boast much top-tier minor league talent.  What Boston does have is a solid, major league-ready young catcher in Ryan Lavarnway.  Prying Lavarnway from the Sox would be tough, as he seems to be pegged as the long-term future behind the dish.  He is an offensive force who has hit at every level, blasting a combined 32 homeruns in 2011 between AA and AAA.  A one-for-one deal seems almost too good to be true, but even after acquiring veteran OF Marlon Byrd in April, outfield depth is still a concern in Boston with both Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury nursing major injuries.  A left-handed power hitter like Garrett Jones may be enough to juice the deal and get Lavarnway.  Current shortstop prospect Xander Bogaerts is a 19-year old potential masher currently playing at Class A-Salem, but projected to eventually move to either third base or the outfield at higher levels.  Boston has plenty of young pitching depth, but its the position players the Bucs need to be scouting in any potential Joel Hanrahan transaction.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – The national debt of Cape Verde, an island country off the coast of West Africa, is approximately $325 million U.S. Dollars.  The L.A. Angels 2011-2012 winter spending spree cost $327 million U.S. Dollars.  So essentially, Angels owner Arte Moreno could have bought the services of 1B Albert Pujols and SP C.J. Wilson – or purchased a country with an estimated 567,000 residents. Thus far, all of that money has netted Moreno and his Angels a 13-17 record and a 6.5 game hole to make up on the Texas Rangers in the A.L. West.  The Angels were relying on young closer Jordan Walden to be their rock in the ninth inning, but after eight terrible outings they demoted him and decided to go with veteran RP Scott Downs.  Already eating into a bullpen that is relying on 39-year old LaTroy Hawkins and the oft-injured Jason Isringhausen, the Angels are in desperate need of an influx of youth and dependability.  As an organization, the Angels have more quality positional prospects than most teams on this list.  No, the Pirates aren’t going to be getting OF Mike Trout in any deal, as he is as untouchable as any player in professional baseball.  However, an intriguing name that could be available due to a loaded depth chart is Mark Trumbo, a 26-year old power hitting corner infielder who could either slot in at first base or take over for Pedro Alvarez at third base – resulting in the oft-rumored move of “El Toro” across the diamond.  Trumbo is a major-league ready hitter who has been forced into a super-utility role due to the presence of Pujols and Kendrys Morales.  In 2011, he played in 149 major league games and stroked 29 homeruns, mostly at first base.  You would be hard-pressed to find a better fit for the Pirates in terms of available, major league ready talent.  We could go more in depth here and discuss some of the pitching prospects (Nick Maronde, Garrett Richards), but if the Bucs find themselves dealing with this team and the final tally doesn’t include Trumbo, then it’s a deal that will be regretted.

 Arizona Diamondbacks – Arizona has a ton of high-upside pitching in their system, making them one of the teams everyone wants to deal with in 2012.  Their General Manager is Kevin Towers, one of the shrewdest in the game.  Arizona doesn’t have much to offer in way of positional talent, as most of their young hitters are already playing in the majors.  Young catcher Michael Perez is in his first full season of professional baseball, and has some power potential but projects to be moved to the outfield eventually.  Infielders David Nick and Ryan Wheeler both have the make up to be future major league players, but lack the type of potential you would want in a Hanrahan trade.  If you want true value from the D-Backs, you need to get one of their young stud hurlers.  Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer are both former first-round picks and both should be in the big leagues by 2013 at the latest.  Beyond them, Arizona has a slew of future mid-rotation starters in Archie Bradley, David Holmberg, and Pat Corbin.  RP Bryan Shaw is currently saving games for the D-backs and is a future full-time closer.  Frankly, Arizona does not seem to be a fit to trade with the Pirates.  If there was some way to pry Skaggs away from them, he has the make-up to become a future starter in a rotation that would include Taillon, Cole, Heredia, and Skaggs.  Think Glavine, Smoltz, Maddux, Avery.

Not going to happen, Bucs fans.

Toronto Blue Jays – The Blue Jays have been just waiting for the season when the Yankees and Red Sox don’t dominate the A.L. East.  They finally get a great start to the season and now have to deal with the best team in baseball – Tampa Bay – and resurgent Baltimore.  Toronto has the big league talent to make a run at a wild card berth this season, but they will need some bullpen help to get there.  Closer Sergio Santos was brought in to be the ninth-inning guy but got hurt early on.  Veteran closer Francisco Cordero was brought in to be a set-up man and has now been thrust back into the close role.  Santos will be back soon and will be needed, because Cordero is barely getting by.  Jason Frasor and Casey Janssen are proven major league relievers, and uber-veteran Darren Oliver is still killer against left-handed hitters.  In the A.L. East, Tampa Bay is by far the best team this season and Baltimore is looking like a totally different team.  Boston and New York can not be counted out despite injuries or bad starts, as both teams have the talent and cash to acquire help this summer.  If Toronto wants to be in the race come August, they will need to add some players.  Could they target Hanrahan to be their bullpen defining closer?  If so, the Pirates have a slew of potentially valuable prospects to choose from in their system.  Catcher Travis d’Arnaud is now firmly behind J.P. Arencibia as the Jays future backstop.  Acquired from Philadelphia in the Roy Halladay deal in 2009, d’Arnaud (brother of Pirates prospect Chase d’Arnaud) is a 23-year old prospect with good power and solid defense.  He is readily available to teams looking to deal with Toronto and could be a nice centerpiece in any Joel Hanrahan deal.  Shortstop Christian Lopes is a young prospect who is in his first professional season in 2012.  Lopes projects as a contact hitter, but is a work in progress in the field.  The Jays boast some quality pitching prospects in SP Drew Hutchinson, Justin Nicolino, Noah Snydergaard, and Adonys Cardona.  All have live arms and are just starting their development.  If the Blue Jays are a contender to acquire Hanrahan, it will be catcher Travis d’Arnaud that should be the key target for Neil Huntington.

Los Angeles Dodgers – The Dodgers are finally out of financial trouble, have new owners who promise “Magic” in Chavez Ravine.  They are leading the N.L. West behind the hitting of OF Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier and a starting rotation that is averaging less than three runs per outing.  What the Dodgers lack is a solid bullpen behind closer Javy Guerra and set-up man Kenley Jansen.  If L.A. is in first place at the All Star Break, look for them to make whatever moves they need to continue their push to the postseason.  The organization is looking for a happy ending to the ownership fiasco that caused the historic franchise to falter the past two years.  The Dodgers will be looking for offensive help, along with bullpen upgrades.  Joel Hanrahan bears a striking resemblance to former saves monster Eric Gagne, and a combination of Hanrahan and Garrett Jones or Casey McGahee could be of interest to the team.  Without a top-rated farm system to pull from, the Dodgers would need to trade an established major league hitter along with a few of their higher-rated youngsters to make a deal like this.  Interesting player to watch for:  1B/OF Scott Van Slyke, the son of former Buccos great Andy Van Slyke.  After hammering Class AA pitching in 2011, he is off to another great start at Class-AAA Albuquerque in 2012.  He is 25-years old, a big long in the tooth to be considered a true prospect, but he has played first base at the higher levels and could be ready to step into a big league role immediately.  Another intriguing player on the Dodgers is current first baseman James Loney, who has never seemed to be able to fully spread his wings in Dodger Stadium.  At 28-years old, he has already played seven seasons in the majors, and despite a troubling start to 2012 he has been pretty a very consistent .280/10/80 player, while playing a very solid first base.  He is signed through 2013 and could be a late bloomer if he got into a position to play daily in a better hitters stadium.  Loney has intrigued me for years, as his talent is so much deeper than what he has ever shown.  I believe if he were to play in Pittsburgh, he could put up .300/25/100 numbers.  A trade with the Dodgers would be an interesting scenario, but unless the Bucs could get Van Slyke or Loney in the deal, it would be hard to find true value.

The Cincinnati Reds are a potential trade target for Hanrahan, but being within the division probably prohibits a deal.  The Reds are using long-time setup man Sean Marshall in the closer role, but ultimately it seems to be destiny for Aroldis Chapman to inherit the role.  With Jose Arredondo making a successful return from injury and a group of solid veterans roundly out the bullpen, the Reds may not want to trade away any more young talent unless another injury occurs.  They gave up alot of talent to acquire SP Mat Latos over the winter, and being a small market team they would be in rough shape if they traded another 2-3 prospects in a Hanrahan deal.

Of course, other teams would be calling if the Pirates made Joel Hanrahan available, but I believe the options I outlines here are not only the best fits for the Pirates, but also the teams that would be able to provide the Bucs with the type of return they would need to continue their path to contending in 2013.  In closing, nobody wants to see Joel Hanrahan leave Pittsburgh.  Despite some rough outings this season, he has been a solid closer and brings an air of confidence to the club.  However, in small market baseball it is imperative that teams like the Pirates continue to flip their valuable trade chips instead of losing them in free agency.  The Pirates seem to have made a commitment to winning with the contract extension of Andrew McCutchen and the drafting of Taillon/Cole/Alvarez.  The organization is stocked with young arms that could easily be the next Pirates closer, and if a team offers the type of value we talked about here tonight for Hanrahan, it would defy logic for the Bucs to not entertain the options placed in front of them.


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