Curious Timing For Pittsburgh Pirates to Trade Joel Hanrahan

By JM Catellier
Joel Hanrahan Pittsburgh Pirates Boston Red Sox
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A little over a month has passed since the Pittsburgh Pirates traded star closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox, but some of the questions regarding the deal still remain unanswered.

It seems that equal amounts of criticism and applaud have followed news of the six-player deal since it took place back on December 26.  The Pirates received top outfield prospect Jerry Sands, reliever Mark Melancon, and minor leaguers Ivan De Jesus and Stolmy Pimentel.  The Red Sox acquired Hanrahan and utility infielder Brock Holt in the deal.

From a talent perspective the trade is probably a wash, with each team receiving a good amount of value in return for their loss.  Where the Pirates win, though, is in long-term appeal and financial stability.  Hanrahan was set receive a big raise in 2013.  Avoiding arbitration, he eventually signed with Boston for one year at $7.04 million—a salary increase of about $3 million from 2012.  By trading him, the Pirates sidestepped Hanrahan’s pay hike.  On top of that, he’ll be a free agent in 2014.  In this sense, Pirates GM Neal Huntington probably thought it was necessary to ensure that he got something for Hanrahan before he walked next year.  He certainly has done that.  The Pirates will have player control over Sands, De Jesus, and Pimentel for years to come.

But there’s another angle that many Pirates fans think should have been examined more closely—the chance to win right now.

Hanrahan was the best player on the Pirates not named Andrew McCutchen.  He was an all-star during each of the last two seasons, racking up 76 saves and holding a 2.24 ERA as the team’s closer.  Only Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves and John Axford of the Milwaukee Brewers have saved more games since 2011.

The Pirates re-signed Jason Grilli over the winter, and he’ll be expected to take over as closer now that Hanrahan is gone.  Grilli has had a very successful run during his two years in Pittsburgh thus far, posting a 2.74 ERA and striking out 12.5 batters per nine innings.  But Grilli turns 37 years old in 2013, and in ten seasons in MLB he’s never served as a full-time closer, with only five saves to his credit.  Melancon had a 20-save season in Houston in 2011, but he’s coming off of an absolutely miserable year in Boston, where he finished with a 6.20 ERA.

With the Pirates building a roster that should contend in 2013, the timing of the Hanrahan deal doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  If the team stumbled out of the gate, they could have just unloaded him then and probably have gotten similar value.  But by pulling the trigger so early, the Pirates have handicapped their bullpen—bad news for fans that were expecting the team to make a run at the NL Central crown.

Maybe the Pirates know something about Hanrahan that the rest of us don’t.  Maybe they still have their eyes on free agents Brian Wilson, Francisco Rodriguez, or even former Pirate Matt Capps.  Or maybe Huntington just panicked and made the move prematurely.  Time will tell.


(JM Catellier is the author of Fixing Baseball, a guide to restructuring the Hall of Fame. Follow him on Twitter: @FixingBaseball and Facebook, and check out his site:

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