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Teams are closing in fast on game’s top closers

Now that strong bullpens are more important than ever, clubs in need of closers are moving swiftly.

Mark Melancon led the majors with 51 saves last season, but his days in Pittsburgh may be numbered.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

At a time when strong bullpens are more important than ever as a result of starters going fewer, major league teams who need closers are acting swiftly.

Craig Kimbrel was acquired by the Red Sox from the Padres. The Tigers got Francisco Rodriguez from the Brewers. The Mariners obtained Joaquin Benoit from the Padres. And it won't stop there.

There are reports that 2015 saves leader Mark Melancon of the Pirates, the Yankees' Andrew Miller, and the Reds' Aroldis Chapman could all be moved before or during the Winter Meetings in Nashville, which start Dec. 6.

Melancon and Chapman are entering the final year of their contracts before free agency and would stand to earn big deals if they continue to perform well.


The Reds are rebuilding, but the Pirates have been contenders lately.

Melancon saved 51 games last season, and since the season ended, he has heard his name mentioned as a possible trade chip. Why would the Pirates trade such an important part of their team? Melancon's performance the last three seasons should net him a sizable contract. And the Pirates just aren't into those.

"It's been part of my career in baseball," said Melancon from his home in Houston. "I've been traded four times, so really I've been there and done it, and if it happens again, then I'll deal with it.

"I love the Pirates. I love our group of guys and would love to stay here, but I also understand the business of it.

"Every organization has a different business plan, and if the Pirates feel they need to deal me, then I understand that. Our people haven't said a word to me about the possibility, so until that changes, I'm assuming I'm starting the year with the Pirates."

Melancon, who also has pitched for the Yankees, Astros, and Red Sox, is into his fifth week of workouts in the Houston area, working with "at least one person represented from every organization."


Melancon rarely stops working. In fact, he said he regrets taking six days off last offseason, feeling it set him back. So this offseason, Melancon already feels like he's ready to go and in great shape.

The 30-year-old righthander was 3-2 with a 2.23 ERA and 0.926 WHIP last season, making the All-Star team and finishing eighth in the National League Cy Young voting.

Melancon has seen the Red Sox send four prospects to the Padres for Kimbrel, and has read the reports about Chapman possibly being traded.

Andrew Miller had 36 saves for the Yankees last season.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has even left the door open to trading Miller, a huge part of their success last season, knowing he has Dellin Betances to close games.

The Tigers, who have long searched for that perfect closer, decided to put their fate in the hands of Rodriguez, who has reinvented himself in recent years and had a very good 2015 season for the Brewers. Rodriguez, who had 38 saves last season and 44 the year before, is only 33 and could be the solution in Detroit.

Rodriguez had a ridiculously low 0.860 WHIP last season to go with a 1-3 record and 2.21 ERA. His opponents' batting average has dropped each year since 2011, when it was .243. In 2015, opponents batted just .189 against Rodriguez. Also, Rodriguez threw 373 fastballs and 353 changeups last season, and batters hit .338 off the fastball and .098 off the change.


There are still plenty of teams who need that bullpen ace. The Astros, Diamondbacks, Blue Jays, Rangers, and others could be in the hunt for Chapman. The Diamondbacks made a big push at the trade deadline but came up short.

The Reds listened to Boston's pitch for Chapman but required more than the Red Sox offered for Kimbrel, and the Sox weren't comfortable going the extra mile for a pitcher who can become a free agent after 2016.

Melancon is in the same boat. He earned $5.4 million in 2015 and stands to double that in arbitration. The Pirates are leery of paying a closer that much, so we may see movement on Melancon.

The Reds are in transition and would likely deal some of their veteran pieces to build toward a couple of years down the road. If that's their intention, Chapman is a luxury they can't afford, and he would bring back a nice haul of young players. The Reds could also deal third baseman Todd Frazier, second baseman Brandon Phillips, and right fielder Jay Bruce. But Chapman would bring back the most.

Miller's name has been out there only because when asked about the possibility of dealing the lefthander to fill other needs, Cashman responded that he would keep an open mind.

The Astros have Miller atop their list for a closer, according to a major league source, and Melancon is also on that list. The Astros have several prospects they could deal for a top reliever.


The Yankees could use another starting pitcher and a righthanded bat. Miller could land one or both. The Yankees have enough power arms that they could take that chance of just moving everyone up a notch and have Betances close. Or they could add another setup man, which is cheaper than the $9 million per year being given to Miller.

The Yankees seem to be operating differently than they once did. It would be surprising to see them involved in a major free agent signing for a power hitter like Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes, or a pitcher like David Price or Zack Greinke.


Giants focused on year ahead

Next year is an even year, and you know what that means. The San Francisco Giants are on the clock.

The Giants won the World Series in 2010, '12, and '14, so 2016 could be their year. The Giants failed to make the playoffs in 2015. They didn't have a bad season, finishing over .500, but their starting pitching struggled, and they could use some pop in their lineup.

They have shed Tim Hudson's $13 million salary and now must assess how deeply they want to go in the free agent market for a power bat.

GM Bobby Evans and the Giants will be one of the more aggressive teams on high-end players.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Expect them to be active on David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann, and Jeff Samardzija, and to look closely into Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes. San Francisco also could be a destination for 37-year-old John Lackey, who has a rebuilt elbow that might be able to withstand a three-year deal.


"We're considering all options," said Giants GM Bobby Evans. "Can't isolate just one level of the market over another right now. We're completely open-minded."

The Giants went hard after Jon Lester and James Shields last offseason. Their offers were as good or better on both, but they lost out to the Cubs and Padres. Lester, who had pitched a half-season in Oakland, didn't want to go back to the Bay Area, and San Diego is Shields's hometown.

This time, the Giants are hoping that the city of San Francisco, the fact that AT&T is a pitchers' ballpark, and the team's recent history of success will be selling points.

The Giants need a pitching boost, someone who can feed off lefthander Madison Bumgarner. The aforementioned free agents would certainly fit the bill, but Evans is also looking into the trade market, where Atlanta's Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran have been discussed.

But the Braves and other teams have been trying to pry from the Giants third baseman Matt Duffy and second baseman Joe Panik, players Evans and executive vice president Brian Sabean don't want to deal.

Slugger Chris Davis has also been linked to the Giants, who could move Brandon Belt from first base to the outfield.

Suffice to say, the Giants will be one of the more aggressive teams on high-end players. This past week, they tied up shortstop Brandon Crawford, a Bay Area native, with a six-year, $75 million deal. Crawford joked, "Three more even years."

Apropos of nothing

1. The Hall of Fame has submitted 10 names for consideration by the Pre-Integration Era Committee: Doc Adams, Sam Breadon, Bill Dahlen, Wes Ferrell, Garry Herrmann, Marty Marion, Frank McCormick, Harry Stovey, Chris Von Der Ahe, and Bucky Walters. Candidates need 75 percent of the votes for election.

2. One National League GM said righthanders Darren O'Day, Joakim Soria, Tyler Clippard, and Ryan Madson are getting the most attention among free agent relievers, and lefthanders Tony Sipp, Neal Cotts, and Antonio Bastardo are also getting some love.

Yoenis Cespedes batted .337 in 57 regular season games for the Mets last season.Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports

3. Yoenis Cespedes helped his value with his performance for the Mets, Justin Upton is a big righthanded bat, and Jason Heyward plays good defense to go with his above-average offense. But one American League GM sized them up this way: "Consistency of effort is a problem for both Cespedes and Upton. Given the amount of years and money you'd have to give, not sure they're worth it. Heyward is what he is. His age could lead you to believe his production offensively might get better, but his elite defense is certainly proven and consistent. But at the end of the day, he hits about 18-20 homers, knocks in 70 runs, and has an OPS of about .790. Do you give north of $20 million a year for that?"

4. On the flip side, our AL GM is head over heels for Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist. "The analytics guys don't like when we call good players 'winners,' " said the GM. "But these guys are winners. Kansas City may not be in the position to sign either, but they are one of the many reasons why the Royals won. Wherever these two end up, they will make their teams better." Our GM thinks the White Sox would be a great fit for Zobrist, and Gordon would be perfect for the Red Sox.

Chris Davis hit 47 home runs for the Orioles last season.Gail Burton/Associated Press

5. The Cardinals and Red Sox are seen as the best fits for Chris Davis. Both need power. With David Ortiz retiring at the end of next season, Davis would be a nice longer-term replacement than, say, Hanley Ramirez.

6. We asked five GMs: Would you take Ramirez if at least half his salary were paid? All five said no. Maybe we didn't ask the right ones.

7. Have I said what a great signing Rich Hill was for the A's? Even though his success last season occurred in September, a tough month in which to judge, he pitched extremely well against the Blue Jays and Yankees, which were playoff teams, and mastered the Rays and Orioles.

Updates on nine

1. Brett Gardner, OF, Yankees — Gardner could be available, according to a Yankees source, but it won't be for an infielder such as the Cubs' Starlin Castro, as was reported last week. The Yankees do need a second baseman, but any deal involving Gardner would have to net a starting pitcher. It's also not a slam dunk that Gardner gets traded, given he's one of the team leaders.

2. Dee Gordon, 2B, Marlins — The Marlins have a few players that other teams are interested in, including center fielder Marcell Ozuna, who could be dealt for starting pitching. But Gordon has received a ton of interest, being a second baseman who can hit as well as run. The Marlins have listened, but it would have to be a huge deal in which front-line, controllable pitching would come in return. Seems unlikely.

Dan Jennings has drawn interest from the Texas Rangers.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

3. Dan Jennings, former GM and manager, Marlins — Jennings was let go after the season, but he wants to stay in baseball. Because he's such a good scout, Jennings has drawn a lot of interest as an adviser/special assistant. The Rangers are interested.

4. Jeffrey Loria, owner, Marlins — Love him or hate him, Loria pays his staff some of the top wages in baseball. He pried pitching guru Jim Benedict from the Pirates, making him vice president of pitching development and giving him a five-year deal for $500,000 annually. Benedict could also have a say in Don Mattingly's pitching coach. Former Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves is in the mix.

5. Kennys Vargas, 1B/DH, Twins — Vargas idolizes David Ortiz, and has the same body type and similar power. But he had a poor 2015 (175 at-bats, 5 homers, 17 RBIs) and now the Twins are trying to figure out where he fits. Vargas, 25, hit .283 with 13 homers and 46 RBIs with a .910 OPS in the minors in 2015. The answer next season is likely Triple A to start, but the Twins will be patient with Vargas. Ortiz is a reminder of that. The Red Sox signed Ortiz after he was released by the Twins, who got no takers at the GM meetings. Forget about the mistake the Twins made; how about the other teams, including the Red Sox, who passed on trading for him?

6. Trevor Plouffe, 3B, Twins — The Twins have fielded inquiries on Plouffe since they won the bidding on Korean 1B/DH Byung-Ho Park, with teams thinking Minnesota could use Miguel Sano at third. But the Twins would have to sign Park first. The Twins know Plouffe would be a huge chip in trying to acquire pitching if they decide to go that way. They are actively looking for relievers.

7. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies — Gonzalez could be traded this winter, but teams have to beware of whether he is a product of Coors Field. The numbers seem to indicate that. Gonzalez has hit .324 and slugged .604 at home in his career, and hit .255 and slugged .441 on the road. That's not to say he couldn't play 81 games somewhere else and put up nice numbers. But you always wonder.

8. Trevor Cahill, RHP, free agent — Cahill rebounded well from some rough outings out of the Braves bullpen. After being released by Atlanta, he went to the Cubs and made 11 quality relief appearances, and at 27 is rebuilding his career. "His priority is to be a starting pitcher again, but he would accept a bullpen spot if he doesn't secure a starting job," said his agent, John Boggs.

John Lackey started 33 games and went 13-10 last season for the Cardinals.Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports

9. John Lackey, RHP, free agent — The Cardinals may feel they've gotten the best out of Lackey, but they have kept their toes in the water. The Red Sox also inquired, but their priority is finding an ace. Lackey wants to stay in the NL, and the Cubs and Giants may have the best shot of signing him.

Extra innings

From the Bill Chuck files: "Aroldis Chapman led all relievers with 170 swings and misses on fastballs (40 percent), Craig Kimbrel had 106 swings and misses (30.1 percent), while Alexi Ogando led the Red Sox bullpen last year with 69 swings and misses (20.4 percent)." . . . Happy birthday, Jonny Gomes (35), Jay Payton (43), and Mike Benjamin (50).

Team guys

The Nationals' disappointing season didn't take away from the MVP year turned in by outfielder Bryce Harper, who set franchise marks in seven offensive categories. And that includes the 36 years the franchise played in Montreal, not just the 11 years in Washington. A look at Harper and some other notable players who put themselves atop franchise lists in 2015.

Compiled by Richard McSweeney

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.