There is a problem with Boston's trade for Joel Hanrahan.
It is not that Joel Hanrahan is a bad pitcher. In fact, we know he can be quite good. He throws hard, and a couple years ago he learned how to throw well. It's possible for two seasons like 2010 and 2011 to be a fluke when it comes to relievers, but Hanrahan really does have the sheer stuff that makes you think that there was more to that than just the inconsistency of relievers.
It's not that the Red Sox have up a major haul. Mark Melancon has as many question marks as Hanrahan, and for all that Sands is an interesting prospect, he's not a top one. He was always the third man in that trade with the Dodgers, above the throw-in pieces of De Jesus and Loney, beneath the top prospects in Webster and De La Rosa. Stolmy Pimentel used to be something, but now he's a lottery ticket, and one with worse odds than most.
It's not even about the $7 million that Joel Hanrahan is likely to get in arbitration. At least not entirely.
The problem with the Joel Hanrahan deal is one of value, how incredibly difficult it will be for the Red Sox to come out ahead in the end, and how easy it is to see the Pirates doing so.
What's the best possible outcome for the Red Sox? And I'm talking amazing perfect world stuff here. Hanrahan is his 2011 self, providing a great year of relief pitching, and Brock Holt defies expectations and ends up a major league regular, if perhaps not a great one.
What's the perfect world scenario for the Pirates? Mark Melancon returns to his 2011 form, providing three strong years of relief pitching--albeit perhaps not as good as Hanrahan's one by itself--while Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimentel, and Ivan De Jesus all manage to give Pittsburgh varying level of production for six years.
Of course, perfect world scenarios re ridiculous. In that world, Sands is probably an above-average regular--certainly playing at a higher level than Holt and De Jesus. And Stolmy, with his stuff? Sky is the limit.
As far as the secondary players are concerned, a much more realistic scenario is that De Jesus and Holt get some time as utility infielders and Stolmy never amounts to anything. Sands, frankly, could be an MLB regular at some point. I hesitate to call it a coin flip, but it's not unrealistic at all to see he Pirates getting plenty of decent years out of him.
The real question is how different are Mark Melancon and Joel Hanrahan to make one year of Hanrahan worth three of Melancon? The answer I come up with is not nearly different enough.
Mark Melancon's terrible 2012 can largely be attributed to his first four games back in April. After his demotion, he may have had a 4.19 ERA (not exactly pretty), but he complemented it with a .597 OPS against and a 4:1 K:BB ratio. Those are rather impressive numbers which suggested he actually pitched quite well after coming back up, even if it didn't always show up in terms of runs.
Joel Hanrahan's trouble month was September. If you look only at April through August, he actually had a remarkably similar .593 OPS against, but the problem comes in the peripherals. A 2.2:1 K:BB ratio (58:26) isn't bad, really, but when it comes with a 4.68 BB/9 there's reason to question how sustainable it is. Guys who can't find the zone simply aren't given a lot of credit by hitters, especially the better ones in the league, and it's all too easy to see his dismal September as less a matter of Hanrahan having a bad month, and more a matter of batters realizing they just didn't really need to swing until he gave them a reason to.
In that situation, the Sox just traded a guy who had figured out his worst issues, recovering from a disaster start to have a respectable finish for a guy who had been riding an unsustainable high for five months only to finally have it come crashing down around him. They traded a guy on the upswing for a guy on the way down.
But let's forget all that narrative stuff.
Without telling that story--and, frankly, even with it--Mark Melancon is a guy with some very real question marks. His .597 OPS against after April was great, but it came in low-leverage situations and a strand rate of something like 58.3% at least opens the door to questions about how Melancon deals with pressure.
But Hanrahan comes with big questions too, because his strong 2.72 ERA comes in PNC Park on the back of a .225 BABIP, and when he was walking four-or-more batters per nine back in Washington, his results were predictably awful.
Hanrahan has a slightly better history. Melancon has one really good year behind him in 2011, Hanrahan has two really good years by peripherals (2010, 2011) two really good years by results (2011, 2012). But neither one of them is a sure thing, and when you really give it a good look, Melancon doesn't really look all that riskier than Hanrahan, making it really hard to see Hanrahan making that one year outweigh Melancon's three.
It's not a blowout deal. The pieces involved simply are not significant enough to make it that. Sure, Sands could be a star and Stolmy an ace in the future because, well, anything can happen. But if you happen to lose the proverbial lottery like that, you shrug and move on because it's not worth really worrying about.
The problem here is that it's a deal that is so difficult to make sense of given an appropriate amount of scrutiny--the sort that the front office should always be applying. It's a deal where the Red Sox seem to have given up some of those lottery tickets for the sake of swapping a shot at three good years of relief pitching for a shot at one good year of relief pitching. And it's really hard to see a positive chain of thought leading Ben Cherington to make such a deal.