Commentary

Melancon trade muddles two bullpens

Updated: December 14, 2011, 5:27 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

For the past 30 days -- the exact number since the Boston Red Sox officially lost Jonathan Papelbon, their closer for the past six seasons, to free agency -- the identity of the Red Sox's 2012 closer has been in question.

Wednesday, the answer to that question might have been further clouded.

[+] EnlargeMark Melancon
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesMark Melancon saved 20 games after taking over the Astros' closer role early in the season.

According to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick, the Red Sox acquired Mark Melancon, the Houston Astros' closer the final five months of 2011, in exchange for infielder Jed Lowrie and pitcher Kyle Weiland.

The deal creates one new opportunity for saves, that one in Houston, just as it clouds the one in Boston. And examining the opportunities in both places, the primary save-getter is absolutely relevant in one, Boston, while it's not nearly as important to fantasy as people think in the other, Houston.

Let's get to the Red Sox's side first. As the team's new highest-ranking save-getter from 2011, Melancon might strike you as the obvious choice to inherit the ninth inning. From the date of his first save last season, on May 6, forward, he was 20-for-24 in the category with a 3.07 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 8.28 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio in 53 appearances. Don't classify him your prototypical, flame-throwing finisher, though; it's his curveball most responsible for his success. Among pitchers who threw at least 300 curveballs, he posted the eighth-lowest batting average allowed (.138) and eighth-lowest OPS (.376). As for his fastball, among the 106 relievers to face at least 200 batters, his 92.6 mph average velocity ranked 60th.

Melancon's ability to mix the two pitches, however, and his ability to generate ground balls -- 49.8 percent in his career -- are what made him successful. His righty/lefty splits -- .228/.275/.305 against right-handers, .243/.344/.360 against left-handers -- are at least close enough that he should continue to succeed in Boston. But closing for the Red Sox is quite a bit different from closing with the Astros, and it's possible that he was acquired not to close, but rather to set up. In that event, we're talking about a handcuff/ratios helper, not a big-time fantasy asset.

However, new manager Bobby Valentine said Saturday that Daniel Bard, long considered the Red Sox's closer-in-waiting, will prepare for the 2012 season as a starter during spring training. Thus, the team's ninth-inning role is under the microscope. Bard would be the most logical choice to close, with Melancon setting him up, but it's not unthinkable that the team's actual closer isn't yet on the roster. They could sign a free agent, such as Ryan Madson, or trade for a more proven option than Melancon, such as Andrew Bailey.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Bard
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireDaniel Bard struck out 74 in 73 innings last year as the Red Sox's setup man.

For now, assume that Bard is the top contender for the role; the spring-starter plan isn't unlike that of Texas Rangers finisher Neftali Feliz this past spring. Melancon, most likely, will be the primary eighth-inning man. But as the Red Sox as a team averaged 43 saves per season during the Papelbon era, the identity of their closer is important to fantasy owners.

In Houston, meanwhile, it's not nearly as important, and one of the primary reasons why is probably the same reason the Astros made the deal: Who needs a closer when there are scarcely any victories to finish?

Everyone points to Bryan Harvey's 45 saves for the 1993 Florida Marlins as rationale as to why closers on bad teams matter, but what those same people tend to forget is that Harvey's Marlins team wasn't bad on an epic scale; it did, after all, only lose 98 games. It's when a team breezes past 100 losses that the closer becomes a bit more irrelevant, and even in the high-90s, Harvey is more exception than the rule.

Since the save became an official statistic in 1969, 37 teams have suffered 100-loss seasons. Only one closer for one of those 37 teams saved 30 games or more: David Aardsma of the 2010 Seattle Mariners (31). And only 14 of those teams had a closer manage 20 or more saves, with those teams' leaders averaging 17.7.

The 2012 Astros are as strong a bet to breeze past 100 losses as anyone, and examining their current roster, there is no obvious replacement for Melancon. They could bring in a low-priced stopgap, slide Wilton Lopez into the role, hope that Brandon Lyon heals quickly from shoulder and biceps surgeries, or ... gulp ... go with some sort of committee perhaps involving any of the above. Considering how unimportant a closer is to a non-contender, the latter might be the answer.

[+] EnlargeJed Lowrie
Joy R. Absalon/US PresswireJed Lowrie could have a chance to get full-time at-bats with a rather thin Astros lineup.

What the Astros did get in the deal, however, was another intriguing fantasy asset: Lowrie. Though he never really got an extended opportunity to play in Boston, he should in Houston, either at third base or shortstop. Project his career stats to 600 plate appearances, roughly a full big league season, if you wish: .252 batting average, 12 home runs, 76 RBIs, 72 runs scored.

Those are possible if Lowrie gets that many PAs, but one of the problems with projecting his numbers to a full season is that injuries and a substantial lefty-righty split are partly responsible for his having not managed that many PAs before. He's a lifetime .326/.385/.534 hitter right-handed, .214/.293/.342 left-handed, and he's 27, meaning he's already in his prime. Lowrie could be destined for a platoon role, but with the Astros, he'll at least get an opportunity to prove he's something more. Considering the lack of proven talent on the roster, he could also quickly grab a prime lineup spot, boosting his counting numbers (RBIs, runs). He's a middle-infield sleeper, and more so in NL-only leagues.

Weiland could compete for a rotation spot in the spring, though if he lands one he would be more matchups option in NL-only formats than a viable late-round pick in mixed leagues. Command has been an issue; he averaged 3.43 walks per nine innings during his minor league career and 4.38 per nine in seven games for the Red Sox.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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