The Pirates should keep Mark Melancon


Last night, Pirates’ closer Mark Melancon was awarded the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Yeard Award, given to the best reliever in the league every season (one is also given to an American League reliever). Melancon very much deserved the award, as he led the NL in saves and was generally dominant from the middle of May until the end of the season.

There’s been a lot of talk since the year ended that the Pirates should consider trading Melancon. In fact, it’s almost a foregone conclusion to some that he’s already as good as gone. It’s reasonable to hold this mindset. The Pirates traded Joel Hanrahan when he was at his peak, and were able to trade Jason Grilli right as he was beginning his decline. They successfully made the change to Melancon, who has been the full-time closer for the team since the middle of the 2014 season. Thus, Neal Huntington has shown that he can successfully transition from closer to closer, especially with the last three, each of whom has been dominant in his time with the Pirates.

Melancon’s also entering his final year of arbitration eligibility, and MLB Trade Rumors projects him to earn about $10 million in 2016, which would put him on par with the highest paid closers in the game. And for a small market team like the Pirates, that kind of money tied up in a closer might not be the best idea.

So trading Melancon would make financial and historical sense. And Huntington has earned our trust with the pitching signings and trades he’s made. But count me in the minority in saying that I think the Pirates should keep Melancon for next season, and there are a number of valid reasons to do so.

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For one, he’s arguably one of the top three closers in the game right now. I would take Aroldis Chapman over him and no one else. His numbers speak for themselves. During his time in Pittsburgh, Melancon has posted a 1.85 ERA, a 2.20 FIP, a 0.92 WHIP, and 203 strikeouts to just 33 walks. That’s a sample size of three full seasons of relief action, and half of that in a full-time closer role. His ERA with the Pirates, for what it’s worth, has been better than Chapman’s with the Reds. You can’t argue with Melancon’s numbers.

Secondly, the Royals are showing how important a great bullpen is, or at least how much of a weapon it can be, especially in the playoffs. The Royals don’t have dominant starting pitching (far from it, actually), nor do they have a superstar offensive player. But by using good defense, base-stealing, and timely hitting to scratch out a few runs early, they can turn to an incredible bullpen late to lock down games. One of the reasons the Pirates won 98 games this past season was because they had the best bullpen ERA in all of baseball, of which Melancon was a huge part.

Third, there’s no guarantee that the Pirates can replace what Melancon brings as the closer. The obvious internal option is Tony Watson, who has a 2.46 ERA in his career with the Pirates and who could be a good closer. But good is different than dominant, which Melancon was. The greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, showed that one pitch can make a closer dominant, and Melancon has that with his cutter; Watson doesn’t have that pitch. Maybe that’s why Melancon has been able to sustain success, while Hanrahan and Grilli couldn’t.

And lastly, even though I’m confident that Huntington could get a decent return in trading away Melancon, wouldn’t the main reason for trading him be to save money? Yes, small market teams will always have to make more decisions based on money than big market teams will, and that’s the problem with the lack of a salary cap. But if the Pirates want to save money, there are other ways to do so. Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez could combine to make close to $20 million next season, and surely one of the two could be flipped to another team. Antonio Bastardo, A.J. Burnett, Aramis Ramirez, Joakim Soria, Corey Hart, and other players are all off the books, shedding upwards of $15 million. And why not consider trading Watson, who could make close to $5 million next season? No one’s asking the Pirates to sign Melancon to a long-term deal. But $10 million for one season of arguably the most dominant closer in the game isn’t absurd. In fact, it’s probably about what he’s worth based on his WAR value from last year and from his previous two seasons.

Neal Huntington has a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason, including the future of Mark Melancon. I don’t envy his position at all. But I’m not a fan of trading him solely because of the money he’s going to make for just one season. Nor am I confident that Watson could come close to the success Melancon has been able to have in the closer role. If it were up to me, I’d find other ways to save money, and find a way to make sure Melancon is the closer of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016.

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