PITTSBURGH — Here is the perfect example of why you can’t be quick to judge trades.
The featured player in the Dec. 26, 2012, deal between the Pirates and Red Sox was closer Joel Hanrahan, who wound up appearing in nine games for the Red Sox as their closer in 2013 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, ending his season — and career with the Red Sox.
Hanrahan has not returned to Major League Baseball. After becoming a free agent, he signed a deal with the Detroit Tigers this summer, but it became obvious after Hanrahan worked out in Lakeland, Fla., that he was not ready to pitch and had to shut it down.
The Red Sox sent Mark Melancon, who had a terrible 2012 season, infielder Ivan De Jesus, first baseman Jerry Sands, and once-upon-a-time No. 1 pitching prospect Stolmy Pimentel to the Pirates for Hanrahan and Brock Holt.
Sands went off to the Tampa Bay organization. DeJesus went to Baltimore then wound up back in Boston in the recent Kelly Johnson to Baltimore deal.
Pimentel has been up and down for the Pirates, but has not developed into the top pitcher the Red Sox envisioned.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said the team gave up on Pimentel because, “We were running out of time. He was going into his last option year and we were concerned we might head into 2014 in a situation where he had to make the team or lose him. He’s always had a good arm. And he’s a good kid.”
So this multi-player deal really came down to Melancon and Holt. For a while it was completely lopsided in Pittsburgh’s favor until Holt, who was behind Josh Harrison on the utility depth chart in Pittsburgh, emerged as a very good player.
That decision has worked out well for the Pirates. Harrison has been one of the best hitters in the National League and made the All-Star team this season.
Melancon found himself in Pittsburgh, and for the past two seasons he has been one of the more reliable late-inning relievers in baseball. At one point, the 29-year-old Melancon was once considered Mariano Rivera’s heir apparent when he pitched for the Yankees.
Since coming to the Pirates, Melancon has appeared in 138 games for a 1.65 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings. He has allowed only three home runs.
Melancon had a 6.20 ERA with Red Sox in 2012.
Both Cherington and fellow Amherst alum and Pirates GM Neal Huntington acknowledge they’d been discussing a Hanrahan deal for a few weeks before it happened.
Cherington knew he was going to have to sell low on Melancon, because despite an upswing in his pitching at Pawtucket and when he returned to the Red Sox late in the season, the team wasn’t sure if it could depend on him.
When the deal started to include other players, Cherington insisted on Holt.
“We had good reports on Holt from our scouts who thought he was an everyday player,” Cherington recalled.
From Huntington’s viewpoint, “There was a lot of narrative that we were going to move Joel Hanrahan. I don’t know if I went to Ben or Ben came to me. We’d had a lot of conversations about Joel. Mark is one of the guys we targeted as a bounce-back candidate, whose stuff we liked. The indicators were strong that he just needed a change of scenery, and a few minor adjustments. Those two pieces [Melancon for Hanrahan] fell into place pretty easily. Ben really fought for Brock Holt. And it turned out well for him.
“Joel has the injury and it didn’t turn out well for them. Pimentel is a guy we liked and Jerry Sands we had liked from LA. De Jesus came into it,’’ Huntington said. “There were multiple conversations. Both sides got creative. Considering what Brock has done, it was a deal that worked out for both sides.
“We loved [Holt’s] bat. The ability to command and manage at-bats was impressive. We liked the defensive versatility. We happened to have a good guy at second base [Neal Walker] and a guy in a similar role in Josh Harrison. We thought our best return for Joel was Melancon and we were willing to put Brock in the deal to get it done.”
Huntington’s faith in Melancon was a modern baseball phenomenon. It was a combination of the organization’s analytics and scouting of Melancon in Boston and Pawtucket.
“It’s been a good group effort,” Huntington said. “We’d done it with Joel and with starting pitchers [Francisco Liriano] as well. It’s important for a small-market team like ours.”
Melancon believes the best thing that ever happened to him was going back to Pawtucket to work on his mechanics. He said he never wanted to look back. And he hasn’t.
“Going back to Pawtucket helped me to bear down and realize that my back was against the wall and I needed to come out firing,’’ he said. “I did that in the second half of 2012. I’m using the cutter a lot more. I learned to pitch differently. I don’t know if the league had anything to do with it, but I know [catcher] Russell Martin has been a big help. He’s taught me a little different way to pitch. Just trusting my cutter more. Keeping the curveball as my out pitch.”
Melancon has moved in and out of the closer role to accommodate injuries to former Pirates closer Jason Grilli, who was eventually traded to the Angels.
“I really felt like I was closing the last two years,” Melancon said. “Last year, I was the eighth-inning closer the whole time. It was a clean inning. It was really a save in the eighth inning and that’s the way I took it.”
Melancon has become one of the more dependable closers in the game. He’s converted 29 of 33 saves and he has a skimpy 0.86 WHIP.
“It worked out great. This is a great team to be on,’’ said Melancon. “[Manager] Clint Hurdle is one of the best people I’ve ever been around. He cares about you like we’re his sons. The chemistry here, the atmosphere is really special. I think that’s why we all pull for each other and want to win it. It’s been a fun year and we’re all looking forward to what’s ahead.”
Holt realized that he probably didn’t have a future in Pittsburgh and said: “This worked out so well for me. I just needed a chance. It took a while, but I got it with the Red Sox.”