As we ramp up to the deadline, a lot of discussion around the Pirates this year has involved Mark Melancon. The situation as it stands is this: the Pirates have a decent shot at making the playoffs this year, but are not favorites to do so; depending on your favorite playoff odds site, they’re somewhere between 15% (Baseball Prospectus, which is seemingly always pessimistic about the Pirates’ chances) and 32% (538’s ELO). Because Mark Melancon is a pending free agent who might not get a qualifying offer (the nature of the system would result in the qualifying offer being a number that occupies a high percentage of the Pirates’ payroll, and I suspect the Pirates won’t be happy about taking that risk on an older reliever who could might accept, however low those odds are) and because relief pitchers play relatively small roles, teams are interested in him and you can make a relatively convincing case that the Pirates should consider dealing him.
I’m not sure I buy the argument for trading him, and since Tim laid out the argument for trading him in that link above, I’ll provide some counter points. Because all playoff odds bake in past performance to some degree to help predict future performance (If you read the linked Pirates Prospects column above, this is why the Pirate’s Davenport number there is so low — it’s based only on performance. This is not Clay Davenport’s main Playoff Odds, and I wouldn’t use it for reasons that I’m discussing right here in this very paragraph that I have rudely bisected with a long parenthetical.), I’d tell you that I suspect the Pirates’ chances tend towards the higher end of that 15-32% range. That’s because the Pirates are sitting here on July 29th with a run differential of +3 despite a June in which they went 9-19 and were outscored 154-106. You shouldn’t discount June’s struggles, of course, but the Pirates are better than that and I don’t expect them to slump that hard again in the second half unless an outside factor turns them that way. Since their low point in late June, the Pirates are 17-9, which is well above that 60% line that I guessed they’d need to hit coming out of the break. The rotation is still full of uncertainty at the back end, but that uncertainty can’t be worse than what they had in June, and they’re much better at the top with Gerrit Cole back and Jameson Taillon mostly impressing in his early big league career. The Pirates are not favorites to make the playoffs today, but there are a lot of things that currently seem to be breaking in their favor, and some of those things aren’t going to be picked up in playoff odds calculations.
In general, the Pirates’ broad strategy appears to be to make the playoffs in as many seasons as possible with the hopes that by being there every year, they maximize their chances of everything breaking their way one October. I have occasionally on Twitter said things along the lines of, “I can’t believe people who watched the Penguins this year are ready to write the Pirates off when they’re still close to the playoffs,” but that’s not an entirely fair comparison. It’s not a fair comparison, because it’s much easier to flip the playoffs in your advantage as a lower-seeded or less-talented team in baseball than it is in hockey. The back end of your rotation disappears in the playoffs, and the extra off days allow you to play to your bullpen’s strengths. Even the miserable Wild Card Game has one small advantage: you only have to win a best-of-five to eliminate the top seed if you win the Wild Card Game.
I skimmed over this in the last paragraph, but don’t forget about the importance that a bullpen plays in winning in October. The Royals were able to make two straight World Series runs with pretty terrible starting rotations, because their bullpen was incredible. The Pirates are most of the way to a bullpen that could carry them deep into October with Melancon, Watson, and Feliz, and they both a trade deadline ahead of them and a few players capable of rounding out the bullpen already on the team.
Put more simply: don’t look at the Pirate roster right now and say, “This isn’t a World Series team, even if they do get to the playoffs.” There are 62 games ahead of us and that’s more than enough baseball to turn a fringe contender into a club that looks like a real contender, before you consider that the playoffs bend in a way that could play into this Pirate team’s hands. The Pirates probably won’t win the World Series this year, but that statement is true of literally every team in baseball. The Cubs’ odds are about 15% right now and their odds are the highest in baseball; that’s a pretty long shot, in the grand scheme of things, but no one faults them for trading for Aroldis Chapman.
There are two parts to judging a trade, though: present value vs. future value. If the Pirates trade Melancon, it’d be (mostly) for future value. So here’s a question: what do the Pirates need in 2017? Their entire starting lineup is signed, and they have a prospect ready to go at the one weak spot (first base). Longer term, Andrew McCutchen could be an issue, but they have Austin Meadows and a few younger guys behind him. They have a good infield prospect that’s flying through the system in Kevin Newman and a couple of other guys on the Adam Frazier super-utility level that can make an impact. They have good catching prospects in the event that the catcher injury carousel hits them again. And they have a ton of Triple-A arms to try and fill in the rotation holes and the bullpen holes that will be created by the departures of Feliz and Melancon.
The Pirates could, in theory, trade Melancon to add prospect depth to trade for a starter, but anything that’s multi-layered runs a large risk of not playing out in the way you anticipate. And given how much of the next couple years is already set, they can trade for starting pitching from prospect depth now without seriously diminishing their chances in 2017 or 2018.
Of course, there are places where a Melancon trade makes more sense. Ken Rosenthal says the Pirates are asking for a reliever to put in the bullpen now as well as prospects, and the immediate impact of the trade would depend on that reliever. It’s hard to imagine a team in need of relief help giving up a reliever to get one, though, which means that the Pirates would be looking at someone who is either expensive, under-performing, or both, and geez, that sounds a lot like Papelbon. That’s not really something I want to consider at this point, so we’ll file that idea away for now under “let’s see what happens.”
All told, though, I think this Pirate team’s chances of making the playoffs (and, by extension, winning the World Series, which is the only goal worth having at this point and so, yes, it is the goal in 2016) this year are much better with Melancon, and I don’t know that they hurt their future chances that badly by keeping him. If they do move him at this deadline, it’d have to be an incredible haul, and even then, it’d have to be the right incredible haul.
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