Thursday, 27 December 2012

Pirates Trade Hanrahan To Red Sox

So, it'll be Hammer Time in Boston in 2013, not Pittsburgh. Finalized on Boxing Day, the Pirates agreed to send All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, along with 2B prospect Brock Holt, to the Red Sox in return for RHPs Mark Melancon and Stolmy Pimentel, OF/1B Jerry Sands and 2B Iván De Jesus Jr.

Inevitably, the trade has drawn the ire of some Bucs fans:
Indeed, on the surface it appears that the Pirates have dealt away one of the premier closers in baseball, accompanied by a prospect who has already debuted in the Majors, whilst receiving four players with mostly limited major league experience. Given Hanrahan's expected 2013 salary of around $7m, cynics will be bound to see the trade as a salary dump, symptomatic of the club's financial approach under the ownership of Bob Nutting. Whether this turns out to be the case or not - regardless of the organization's intention - will be determined by the performance of the players involved in 2013 and beyond. A salary dump is only a salary dump in reality if a) the player with the big salary continues to perform at the same level and b) the players picked up fail to make a significant impression.

One can only speculate as to whether Nutting wanted Hanrahan's salary off the books at - if you'll excuse the pun - any cost, or whether GM Neal Huntington genuinely believes he got the better side of this deal. However, we can look at the players and circumstances involved to see how the trade will impact the Pirates in the coming season and the future. Hanrahan is clearly the biggest piece in the trade, so I'll start with him and look at the other 5 in separate posts. He's coming off a second straight season of 35+ saves, something only Milwaukee's John Axford and Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel have managed in the same span. Saves, like Wins for starting pitchers and RBIs for hitters, are the statistic which get people drooling over closing pitchers. The more saves you rack up, the more you're likely to be worth. In fact, relief pitching in general is becoming incredibly expensive. Witness 3-year deals signed by Brandon League ($22.5m, Dodgers), Jonathan Broxton ($21m, Reds) and Jeremy Affeldt ($18m, Giants). (As an aside, both Axford and Kimbrel will likely earn less than $600,000 in 2013, as pre-arbitration players)

Hanrahan's circa $7m for 2013 would be in line with the annual value of these contracts, so for a lot of clubs, keeping him would have been a no-brainer. However, the Pirates payroll projects to be somewhere in the region of $70m next season. That would mean Hanrahan would have been due about 10% of all the money paid to Pirates' players in 2013. That's a lot for 4% of the pitching workload (59.2 IP out of 1433.1). Whilst that's clearly an oversimplification of a closer's role and value, it does put Joel's salary in some kind of perspective. It is also worth noting that there were some clues down the stretch that he may not continue to produce at the outstanding level he has over the last two years. It was noticeable that he allowed more baserunners later in the season, and his control over the course of the year was less than stellar (5.4 BB/9), leading to a lower strikeouts-to-walks ratio (1.86, down from 3.81) despite striking out batters at a higher rate.

In terms of how Hanrahan's departure will affect the Pirates, it seems all but certain that having re-signed Jason Grilli to a 2-year, $6.75m deal in mid-December, the club expect him to take on the mantle of closer. Assuming his performance doesn't collapse, Grilli could be even more successful in this role than Hanrahan. In 2012, the 36-year old struck out an unholy 13.8 batters per 9 innings, had a lower walk rate (3.4 BB/9) and held opponents to a lower OBP (.285) than Hanrahan (.307). He also replicated the Hammer's dominance of left-handed batters, despite a much higher batting average on balls in play (.314 against .172). Clint Hurdle's other option is likely to be Melancon, who has some excellent peripheral statistics but struggled in some high-leverage situations last season. At this stage it looks like Grilli in the 9th with Melancon possibly setting-up in the 8th.

All of this is pure speculation, of course. Joel Hanrahan proved he could handle the 9th inning and ended up as one of the Pittsburgh Pirates' greatest closers, as well as one of Neal Huntington's most shrewd acquisitions. It also seems that he was an outstanding contributor to the city of Pittsburgh and its community off the field as well as being a presence in the locker room. Clearly, his departure is a loss for the city, the club and its fans, but one of the few things the Pirates' management have shown in recent years is an ability to put together a reliable bullpen. Grilli (and hopefully Melancon) should allow that to continue.

As for the Red Sox, they clearly believe Hanrahan will continue to produce at an All-Star level, having already named him their closer, making Andrew Bailey's future uncertain. Well, good luck to them, and especially to Joel Hanrahan. Hammer, you will be missed!


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