Tim Benz: History of Pirates trading closers has been spotty
If the Pirates are genuinely considering a trade of Felipe Vazquez, one thing is clear.
The team better get its next closer in exchange for him. Otherwise, recent history shows us that the return for good closers the Pirates have previously had has been poor.
To the credit of Neal Huntington, his staff, Clint Hurdle and Ray Searage, the Pirates have acquired and developed some very effective closers over the years.
Between 2011 and 2016, Joel Hanrahan begat Jason Grilli who begat Mark Melancon. All three were National League All-Stars. And after a failed attempt to promote Tony Watson to that role — an All-Star selection in his own right as a set-up man — Felipe Vazquez (then named Felipe Rivero) took over in 2017. He’s had the gig ever since, saving 77 of 85 opportunities with a 2.25 ERA during his time in Pittsburgh.
Now there’s talk of the Dodgers having an interest in acquiring Vazquez. Some say dealing Vazquez makes sense for the Pirates, because why does a sub-.500 team need a good closer if they are rarely in front late in games?
Secondly, there is the argument that the Pirates could get a massive return from a deep Dodgers farm system. Vazquez is only 27 years old, has a live arm and is under contractual control until 2023 for no more than a $10 million club option in each of those last two seasons.
Here’s where that argument starts to erode.
The Pirates rarely have gotten good players back when dealing their closers. And when they have, the best players have eventually been closers themselves.
For instance, Vazquez was acquired from Washington in the trade of Melancon on July 30, 2016. The other pitcher in that deal was Taylor Hearn, and he has exactly ⅓ of an inning of Major League experience under his belt— in Texas. He never pitched in Pittsburgh.
When Hanrahan was moved in December 2012, the Pirates got Melancon in exchange. He saved 130 games here. But the other players tied to that trade were Stolmy Pimentel, Ivan De Jesus and Jerry Sands. They amounted to nothing with the Pirates.
Huntington made that move even though Grilli was going to take over with only five saves on his MLB resume at the time, and Hanrahan was coming off 76 saves the previous two seasons.
By the way, the Pirates sweetened that deal with Brock Holt. He’s since been a regular contributor to three Red Sox playoff teams and was named an All-Star in 2015.
In 2014, Grilli got off to a bad start, had an oblique injury and was soon replaced by Melancon. Grilli was shipped off to the Angels in June of that year for Ernesto Frieri, who accumulated a 10.13 ERA over 14 games in his glorious Pirates career.
All the Pirates got from the Dodgers for Watson in July 2017 was Oneil Cruz and Angel German, who are still in High-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona, respectively.
Want go back even more? Mike Williams was pushed out twice. Once to Houston for Tony McKnight in the middle of the 2001 season, with 22 saves at the time. Williams was swapped again for Frank Brooks from Philadelphia after a 26-save start to the 2003 season.
Brooks (4.67 ERA) and McKnight (5.19 ERA) combined for 23 games in Pirates uniforms.
So, as you can see, the legacy of getting great talent back for Pirates closers over the years isn’t exactly stellar.
Unless, as stated above, the team was getting its next closer in the process. And if that’s part of the goal of a potential Vazquez trade, then just keep Vazquez. He’s good. He’s still young. And — wait for it — he’s cheap.
Uh, sorry, I’ll use Pirates-speak here: He’s “cost-controlled.”
The only acceptable deal for the Pirates regarding Vazquez must be a top-three starting pitcher and a closer replacement. Both players must be part of the team coming out of spring training in 2020 because the starting rotation hasn’t been as good (even when healthy) as we expected this year.
Plus, with the 2019 emergence of Josh Bell, Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds, the Pirates may actually have a few more leads to hold in the ninth inning next spring.
If Kyle Crick can replace Vazquez and be what Grilli was to Hanrahan, great. But if he flames out in those higher leverage situations, Huntington may want another option to replace him as Vazquez did when Watson couldn’t hack it.
With anything less than those two pitching components — and maybe a decent high-minors bat — as a give-back for Vazquez, what are the Pirates really doing?
Come to think of it, that’s a question we’ve been asking for the majority of the last four decades, I suppose.