In a deal that has been brewing for some time, the Red Sox officially added Joel Hanrahan to the bullpen on Wednesday, shipping out Jerry Sands, Mark Melancon and Ivan DeJesus for the honor. Boston also received infielder Brock Holt.
There’s a lot to like about Hanrahan, who should be a quality closer for the Red Sox, giving the team insurance on Andrew Bailey. The 31-year-old racked up 76 saves over the last two seasons for the Bucs. Hanrahan’s calling card is his high-90s heater combined with a wipeout slider. A free agent at the end of the year, Hanrahan’s acquisition signifies that the Red Sox feel they have a great choice at making the playoffs in 2013. Otherwise, why would they give up assets for a one-year fling at the closer’s position before departing for free agency?
The problem here is that Hanrahan comes with warts. Specifically, walk rate. The righty walked 5.43 batters per nine innings last season, way up from the 2.10 he posted the year prior. It could be an aberration or it could be Hanrahan regressing to spotty control, which plagued him early in his career. Is 2010/2011 — where he was stingy with walks and was one of the best relievers in the game — the exception as far as his command goes, or did he actually make strides and his 5.43 BB/9 in 2012 the exception?
Instead of throwing in a bajillion heat maps, I’m just going to tell you some things I found interesting when I poked a bit deeper into Hanrahan. For one, his pitch location frequency over the last four years has gravitated from low-and-away to a right-hander (2009, 2010) to more in the middle of the zone (2011) to up-and-in to right-handers with a bit of low-and-away tossed in there too, largely shying away from the other two corners of the strike zone. With more pitches up in the zone, it’s not that surprising he gave up a lot more homers than he ever has on a rate basis, and simply shifting him back to prior pitch locations could address the issue. As far as his command goes, while the significance is not massive, I did observe a difference in Hanrahan’s called-strike rate between 2010/2011 and 2012, with Hanrahan operating inside a much tighter zone than before. In addition, his disappearing control could point to physical issues, as almost any pitcher who throws a strong slider can tell you. It’s simply not good for the elbow, which did flare up with some problems in 2010, but otherwise has been a non-issue.
Hanrahan ended up with a 4.28 xFIP on the year despite a 2.72 ERA. As mentioned before, he can strike out batters with the best of them, but his ability to control the ball is the wild card. And don’t forget, he’s a free agent after the year, so he could either be a goner or get paid significant dollars by Boston. If he does walk, given how the market for Rafael Soriano hasn’t developed, I question if he would even receive the qualifying offer necessary to net Boston a draft pick should he depart, so the Sox may have nothing to show for the deal after 2013. If the Sox are really committed to winning in 2013 (and honestly believe they can), then the deal makes some sense, but where it all falls apart in the return for me is Mark Melancon.
A bit of words on the other parts first. For one, Jerry Sands’ inclusion in the deal is fine. He has significant power and can play first base and left field. It may have been worth hanging onto him and seeing what he could do, but Sands was going to be scrapping for playing time no matter what the next few years, and strikes out enough that his long-term viability is in question. Clearing out a 40-man logjam for someone who currently profiles as an average platoon player makes sense, and so does the inclusion of Ivan DeJesus, who is essentially a backup infielder at best, with long stretches ahead of him in Triple-A. Holt, meanwhile, has a better stick than DeJesus, but he does give some of it back on defense. Holt and Ciriaco will compete for the bench job and it’s possible the team views Holt as the long-term piece, but he’s nothing to get worked up about either.
Melancon, on the other hand, had a lower xFIP than Hanrahan this past year at 3.45. If you toss out his first few relief appearances in which he was the gasoline on the fire, he had a strong year. He kept the walks down and struck out more than enough batters be a valued member of the bullpen. He did have some issues with Bobby Valentine, namely with the skipper giving up too quickly on Melancon after his April implosion and putting him in low-leverage innings most of the year, but I’m struggling to see how four cost-controlled, cheap years of Melancon is worth the one year of Hanrahan at a salary north of $7 million, even if Hanrahan bounces back to 2010-11 levels.
He would have to be nothing more than an average middle reliever for that not to come back to bite Boston, and I believe the last few years of Melancon’s career show that he can pitch in the late innings. He’ll hold more value pitching in the NL Central and for the Pirates than for the Red Sox, certainly, but Melancon was dealt at the nadir of his value, and misleading ERA aside, he was close enough to Hanrahan in total pitching value that his inclusion in the deal is a real head-scratcher. Yes, the Sox needed to make room in their bullpen, but you make room with the Clayton Mortensens of the world, not the Melancons of the world.
This deal’s success is going to come down to two things. First, if Hanrahan’s control comes back to 2010/2011 levels and second, if Melancon shows the world there’s a reason he was once viewed as a future closer.