When the Pittsburgh Pirates traded All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan and infielder Brock Holt to the Boston Red Sox last offseason, many thought it was just the Pirates being the Pirates, trading away star players to avoid spending big bucks. Even though that was partially true, the trade didn’t end up being just a salary dump.
The Pirates actually got a ton of value in exchange for Hanrahan, even though it didn’t necessarily seem like it at the time. The Red Sox sent pitchers Mark Melancon and Stolmy Pimentel, infielder Ivan De Jesus Jr. and first baseman/outfielder Jerry Sands to the Bucs for Hanrahan and Holt.
The Pirates basically traded a $7 million closer to the Red Sox for an All-Star set-up man (Melancon), a solid starting pitcher/reliever (Pimentel) and two minor league players that added depth to their farm system. The Bucs probably waited a year too long to trade Hanrahan, his value was at its peak the offseason prior to the Pirates trading him.
Trading current closer Jason Grilli probably wouldn’t have the same reward that trading Hanrahan did. Grilli is in his late 30’s and he isn’t expensive. In fact, the Pirates don’t need to trade him at all — his contract is very team friendly, especially since most closers make far more money than they should be making. Grilli had a bit of a rough second half of the season, with a trip to the disabled list and a decline in performance combining to make him nearly untrustworthy at times at the end of 2013. His fastball velocity dipped a bit, but he still had a breaking ball that allowed him to continue to rack up strikeouts. However, with Grilli’s age, there are legitimate concerns that he may not be able to repeat his success going forward.
The Pirates have excellent scouting, particularly when it comes to scouting pitchers. Along with great scouting, the Pirates use the statistics that matter when predicting future performance of pitchers: FIP, ground ball percentage, K/9 and BB/9. This allows them to buy low on pitchers that pitched better than their numbers showed, and they normally turn out to be wise investments. If you need examples, I have several: Mark Melancon, Grilli, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Vin Mazzaro, Kyle Farnsworth and Jeanmar Gomez.
With the Pirates’ ability to find cheap pitching options, particularly in the bullpen, it allows them to trade All-Star caliber relievers for solid pieces that can help add depth to the roster. They know they can replace anyone they trade away, and they can do it for less money. Trading an aging Grilli makes a lot of sense, even if they don’t get great value. After all, it didn’t look like great value when they traded Hanrahan — but it clearly was.