Pirates trade Mark Melancon to the Nationals

I have a sneaking suspicion that in a year or two, we’re going to look back at the Mark Melancon trade and call it a win for the Pirates. Felipe Rivero is 25 years old with a fastball that hits 100 mph, his peripheral numbers this year are already great, and he’ll finish this year with less than two full years of big league service. He is almost certainly a pitcher that will slot well into the Pirate bullpen, either this year or in the future. Taylor Hearn is a 6’6″ 21-year old lefty starter that throws 100 mph. Apparently his prospect status isn’t great because he was inconsistent in high school and college, but there’s a ton for the Pirates to work with here. Obviously they don’t bat 1.000 on their trades for pitchers (*ahem*Jon Niese*ahem*), but given how trades like the Travis Snider trade have worked out, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on guys like Hearn.

I also don’t really think it’s fair to compare the return for Melancon to the return the Yankees got for Aroldis Chapman. Melancon is a great reliever, but Chapman is an anomaly. The Nationals are a very good team, the Cubs are a great one. The Pirates wanted a reliever that could replace Melancon immediately, and as stated above, I don’t know that they could’ve done better in that category than Rivero. I would have preferred them to get a better prospect than Hearn, but it seems pretty obvious what the Pirates see in Hearn, and just because prospect rankings don’t seem to be as high on Hearn as the Pirates are doesn’t make the prospect rankings right and the Pirates wrong. A controllable relief arm with a lot of upside and a pitching prospect doesn’t seem like a bad or inappropriate haul for two months of a relief pitcher, and if either one pans out the Pirates will get more value out of this trade than the Nationals do out of Melancon in the next two months.

I’ll also say that the trade deadline is Monday, that moving Melancon clears extra money, that the Pirates are obviously interested in starting pitching, and that it certainly is possible for the Pirates to make more moves and be stronger post-deadline than they were pre-deadline, with the Melancon trade helping facilitate that. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

What I don’t like is this: the Pirates are almost certainly better in 2016 with Mark Melancon than they are with Felipe Rivero. The Pirates are not out of the playoff race; even with two lifeless losses to the Brewers in a row. They’re three games out of the Wild Card, and that’s a reality that’s much more concrete than a legion of Pirate fans saying, “But they don’t feel like a playoff team.” There are 59 games left, and the Pirates have games left against everyone ahead of them. In 2016, playoff series and World Series are won and lost with bullpens, and the Pirates just traded their best reliever. Saying that the Pirates aren’t *really* in the playoff race this year and that that makes it OK to trade Melancon is a self-fulfilling prophecy; this just-concluded loss to the Brewers shows the difference between having eighth and ninth inning guys vs. having seventh, eighth, and ninth inning guys. Maybe Rivero will be a useful seventh inning guy immediately (his peripherals suggest he could be), but maybe he won’t.

I understand that the reality of Major League Baseball means that the Pirates should always be looking forward, no matter where the focus of the fans is or what’s happening on the field at PNC Park. Trading a key part of the bullpen while you’re only three games out of the Wild Card treads that line pretty closely, though. At some point, the Pirates have to decide that the future is now, and that future trade value is a diminishing return vs. actually trying to win no matter what the WAR tallies say. If trading Melancon is the difference between this team missing the playoffs vs. making them, then they’ve given up more than just two months of a reliever’s performance.

Image credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.