Melancon’s straw stirs the closers’ market drink

Melancon goes to the Bay to begin fixing the Giants' broken bullpen . . .

Melancon goes to the Bay to begin fixing the Giants’ broken bullpen . . .

We talk much, and often hyperbolically, about the worst kept secrets in baseball. But in 2016, the Giants’ bullpen was an easy candidate for the absolute worst-kept secret in the game. In a word, the Giants’ pen was a wreck populated by arsonists.

They went from baseball’s near-best record at the All-Star break to lucky to be in and win the wild card game against the Mets. Few thought they were better than long shots to keep their too-often spoken even-season championship streak alive.

The Giants bullpen blew thirty saves in 2016′s regular season. Closer Santiago Casilla lost his job in September and didn’t get to throw a single pitch in October. The pen lost nine regular season games in which the Giants led after eight innings, including five such losses in September.

It was that bad: Conor Gillaspie had to hope Mets closer Jeurys Familia would make a mistake—which he did, throwing a sinker that didn’t break as intended—to hit the three-run homer in the top of the ninth that allowed Madison Bumgarner, out-pitched through seven by Noah Syndergaard, to be his own closer, in a wild card game that threatened to go to extra innings in a scoreless tie.

That was bad enough. Worse was blowing two ninth-inning leads in division series Games Three and Four, sending themselves home and the Cubs along their merry way toward the Promised Land. So the winter meetings were barely called to order Monday morning when the Giants landed a deal with free-agent Mark Melancon, who spent 2016 closing for the Pirates and then the Nationals.

Pending the righthander’s physical, the deal is four years and $62 million. Melancon was one of three top of the line closers on the open market, next to Aroldis Chapman (Cubs) and Kenley Jansen (Dodgers). At 31, Melancon’s just gotten the biggest pay day of his career. The Nats offered four years but less than $60 million; Melancon had multiple four-year/$60 million plus deals on the table, says the Washington Post.

When the Pirates traded him to the Nationals near the 2016 non-waiver trade deadline, there were those observers (including yours truly) who wondered two things: did it mean Jonathan Papelbon’s days in Washington were numbered, and did it mean the Nats were willing to risk a little hair raising in higher-leverage, late-game situations.

At the time of the trade, Melancon’s strikeout to walk ratio tended to shrink dramatically the higher leverage the game situation was. When it was low leverage, Melancon before the deal was 18-to-1. In medium leverage, it was a still-respectable 5-to-1. In high leverage, it was 1.7-to-1.

Had Papelbon not been cratering otherwise despite his better K/BB ratio at that hour, the Nats might not have been hunting the new closer they should have hunted after Papelbon’s disgraceful assault on Bryce Harper the day after the Mets clinched the 2015 National League East title.

But Chapman was reeled in by the Cubs and proved huge enough in their staggering World Series run. And Andrew Miller, on whom the Nats gazed as a prospective closer, was reeled in by the Indians, and he proved huge in their staggering run to Game Seven of the Series.

So the Nats settled for the likely rental of Melancon. If you’re scoring at home, Melancon’s new deal breaks the closers’ record set by . . . Papelbon, when he signed with the Phillies in 2011. And Melancon laid skeptics to waste while helping the Nats run away with the NL East in the second half. It wasn’t his fault the Nats were taken out by the Dodgers in the division series.

Melancon—whose division series performance was impeccable—wasn’t the genius who told Dusty Baker to yank Max Scherzer after Joc Pederson hit an otherwise unhittable pitch over the left center field fence to start the Nats’ seventh-inning death march, instead of hooking Scherzer to start the inning and going to a lefthander throwing from the side against which the Dodgers struggled all year.

His K/BB ratio as a Nat was 9-to-1. He got into or provoked almost no true high-wire acts late in games. He had a 0.90 walks/hits-per-inning-pitched rate and a 2.09 fielding-independent pitching average to line up against his 1.82 ERA as a Nat, an indication he was depending way less on his defenses than he was thought to have been previously.

The only problem the Giants should have is that Melancon is a) only part one of their bullpen overhaul, and b) a risk no matter how you slice it or look at him now. Four-year deals on relief pitchers have risks. Twelve relievers have gotten deals like that since the century turned. Four cratered, another (David Robertson, according to ESPN’s Keith Law) may be about to, and four more just didn’t live up to the deals.

The Cardinals signed setup man Brett Cecil to four years and $30 million in late November. They needed lefthanded bullpen help and got it. Cecil helped his own cause by coming back from a lat tear that cost him six weeks and going to a 1.74 ERA in his final twenty-plus innings to help the Blue Jays to the postseason.

The good news for the Cardinals: He’s two years younger than Melancon and his strikeouts per nine in 2016 were a whopping 11.0. The bad news: He’ll be 33 when the deal expires, and his contact allowed in 2016 included the hardest-hit balls of his career.

But Cecil was a minnow compared to Melancon in the bullpen sea. He wasn’t going to affect the market the way Melancon has. Melancon now has the Yankees—who may have had eyes for him as something of a bargain—thinking even more heavily about bringing Chapman back to the Bronx. If they can beat the Nats, now said to be thinking about gunning for Chapman with all shells firing, that is.

He also has Chapman and Jansen’s phones set up to be blowing up soon enough, courtesy of teams needing shutdown closers pronto. (He also has the two thinking about their own gigabucks, now that he’s reset the closers’ market.) The Cubs won’t be one of them, where Chapman is concerned—he’s said to want a six-year deal and the crazy Cubs aren’t that crazy.

But the Dodgers (assuming they don’t play for Jansen), the Reds  (worst pen in Show history if not for the Giants in ’16), maybe the Rockies (worst pen ERA in ’16), possibly the Twins (missing Glen Perkins and his torn labrum; pen otherwise spare parts of dubious durability) might be calculating their plays. Ready to set new closer signing records, perhaps?

To think it was little ol’ Mark Melancon whose straw might have stirred that drink. Who’da thunk?

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