The Red Sox continued their busy week of tinkering around the edges of the team with two related transactions. First,Boston sent talented young infielder Jed Lowrie and pitcher Kyle Weiland to the Astros for reliever Mark Melancon. Then they replaced Lowrie’s super sub bench position by signing former Twin and Cardinal Nick Punto to a 2 year/$3M contract. The team continues to dodge high price signings and is seeking instead to find value on the trade market, something they have done quite well here.
Mark Melancon is not a household name. If you were to ask 100 Sox fans who would be replacing Papelbon, I doubt any would have come up with Mark Melancon as the answer. However, that certainly looks like the conclusion Ben Cherington and Co. have come to and it is actually very easy to see why they would. Melancon has a small track record as a pro but that small sample certainly suggests elite closer. In 112 innings in the past two years, the righty has a 3.21 ERA and a 3.47 FIP. More importantly though, he has a strong strikeout rate (7.88) combined with both an average walk rate (3.54) and a truly elite ground ball rate (55.5%). That is a rare combination that you generally find in ace starters, like Roy Halladay or Jon Lester and dominant closers, like Mariano Rivera. If Melancon either ups his strikeout rate or lowers his walk rate, he could be every bit the equal of Papelbon in production while earning the league minimum over the next two seasons.
To land Melancon, Boston had to give up something of real value and that player was Jed Lowrie. Lowrie had shown flashes of greatness with the Red Sox but he also struggled to stay on the field. The infielder has played just 256 games in his four seasons with injuries stopping Boston from giving Lowrie a full time job at short. Lowrie was also questionable with the glove, rating below average by UZR and DRS at SS. The switch hitter can make things happen in the batter’s box though. He has a good eye at the plate (9.7% walk rate)and surprising power given his size (.156ISO). If he remains healthy, he may flourish in a full time role, giving Houston a shortstop who can hit.
To replace Lowrie, Boston then signed infielder Nick Punto. Punto is famous for his lack of pop but he may actual make more sense than Lowrie in the utility role. For one thing, Punto is an excellent defender. He ranks as an elite glove man by both UZR at third and short and he has been above average at second as well. He has virtually the same walk rate as Lowrie (Punto’s is 10.1) and he makes contact at an extremely high rate, whiffing just 3.4 % of the time. He is also a much better bet to available day in and day out. While his $3M price tag might look high, it is not likely to be significantly more that Lowrie would have gotten through arbitration.
Ultimately these moves could resonate throughout the season as Boston has added a potential closer and a perfect utility player for a very modest cost. Sox fans loved the Jedi, as Lowrie was sometimes called, especially after his torrid stretch run in 2010, but ultimately the team will be better with Punto and Melancon, even if Melancon does not accend to Papelbon’s old job. While the impact of this deal could be sizable, this still feels like a fringe move. Cherington continues to build up the team in small, highly intelligent ways, but the state of the market and our need for starting pitch still leads me to believe that a bigger move is on the way.