Is it time for the Pittsburgh Pirates to lock up a closer?


The Neal Huntington era in Pittsburgh Pirates baseball is personified by several key principles.

Lock up talent early, or at least try to.

Exploit market inefficiencies.

Steadily build the farm system.

All of those are basic tenets of The Huntington Way, but perhaps no operating principle has been as on-display as the one that pertains to the pitcher designated to close out games.

Next Man Up.

More from Rum Bunter

Sure, the terminology may be better known to most Pittsburgh sports fans as originating from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, but it’s Huntington who has shown to be the true disciple of the methodology.

Afterall, it was Huntington that traded Joel Hanrahan on the back of 76 combined saves in 2011-2012. Hanrahan – a fan favorite – left behind a 2.24 ERA as his Pirates legacy as the move was strongly criticized, scrutinized, and publicized by many as the worst trade of Huntington’s tenure to that point. Never mind the fact that Huntington received a nice bounty of players and prospects in return, including a pitcher with some modicum of closer experience named Mark Melancon.

More on him in a moment.

Also, it was Huntington – with input from Clint Hurdle – who in 2013 gave the 9th inning ball to Jason Grilli, the proverbial ‘next man up’ when Hanrahan departed PNC Park. Grilli responded by resurrecting his career to the tune of 33 saves. When he faltered, Huntington knew the Pirates’ late inning duties would be in good hands, with Melancon waiting in the wings to take over the reins of the shark tank.

Next man up.

Fast forward to today and Melancon is fresh off of a season that saw him notch 51 saves – good enough to lead all of MLB and set a team record in the process. Entering his final year of arbitration control, Melancon figures to receive a nice raise from his $5.4 million dollar salary. There has already been talk of Melancon trade possibilities before the two sides even get to the arbitration table. 

All of those are basic tenets of The Huntington Way, but perhaps no operating principle has been as on-display as the one that pertains to the pitcher designated to close out games.

Balking at extensions for closers is nothing new. The prime cautionary tale would be Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon was given a $12.5 million/year contract from the Philadelphia Phillies that immediately handcuffed the Phillies’ ability to use him in any deal going forward. With a rebuild staring them in the face, the Phillies found themselves with an albatross with a nigh-unmovable contract, until a desperate team came calling. We all know how that turned out.

So the question I’ve been ambling towards for the past few paragraphs is upon us. Coming off of a career year for a Pirates closer, is it time for Neal Huntington to stray from what has worked thus far? Is it time to lock up the key member of the best bullpen in baseball?

No. No it is not.

As per MLB Trade Rumor’s projections, Melancon figures to approach $10 million in salary for 2016. Suddenly the question becomes not if the team should approach him for a long-term contract, but should he even be in a Pirates uniform for 2016? That money may be better spent elsewhere, with some serious questions in the starting rotation and corner infield spots. With Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, and others also going into the arbitration process, some hard decisions will have to be made, but that’s a debate for another day.

Closers break down. They lose their effectiveness. The nature of pitching the ninth inning can take its toll, and we have seen many completely fall off of the map. For every Craig Kimbrel, there’s an Eric Gagne. The aforementioned Hanrahan has struggled with injuries and may never pitch in MLB again.

And therein lies the rub with closers. Why would teams invest so much money in pitchers that pitch few innings and are prone to breakdown? It’s just bad business. And for a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates, bad business can sink carefully laid plans.

Next Man Up.

Next: 5 Reasons to root for the Houston Astros