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Hot Stove: Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan could be available through trade

11.14.11 at 3:17 pm ET
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Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan emerged as an All-Star closer in 2011. (AP)

With a “Help Wanted” sign posted on the job of closer now that Jonathan Papelbon has agreed to a deal with the Phillies, the task of identifying the next Red Sox closer is one of GM Ben Cherington’s most significant tasks of the offseason.

For obvious reasons, attention has focused primarily on either internal candidates for the job (most notably, Daniel Bard) or a very, very deep free agent market of closers. But there are issues related to both of those scenarios.

In Bard’s case, there is the element of the unknown for a pitcher who has never been asked to serve as the master of the ninth-inning domain. Moreover, if he closes, the Sox would be left with the absence of a pitcher who became, arguably, a more powerful weapon for them by virtue of the diversity of situations he could address while working in the middle innings on the bridge to Papelbon.

With free agents such as Heath Bell, Ryan Madson, Joe Nathan and others, there is the usual discomfort with the salaries and years (not to mention, in some cases, potential draft picks) associated with signing free agents. Papelbon left because the Sox didn’t want to match the Phillies’ four-year commitment (which includes a vesting option for a fifth year). But the Sox, presumably, would like to avoid even a three-year commitment to a pitcher in his 30s, especially given the history of performance volatility and health risks associated with relievers.

That, in turn, raises the question of whether the Red Sox might explore the trade market, and if they do, what they might find on the horizon. And if the Sox do kick the tires on the trade market, one fascinating candidate would be Pirates All-Star Joel Hanrahan.

Hanrahan was dominant in a pair of games against the Sox this year, retiring six of the seven batters he faced and, though recording just one strikeout, producing a number of weak, defensive swings. His midseason show in Pittsburgh was par for the course in 2011, when Hanrahan emerged as one of the top closers in baseball, with a 1.83 ERA, 61 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings, just over a baserunner per inning and only one homer allowed in the entire season.

His strikeout numbers were down from a historic 2010 season, when Hanrahan punched out 12.9 batters per nine innings, in the process becoming one of just three pitchers ever to strike out at least 100 batters in fewer than 70 innings. However, that decline in strikeout rate was, to a degree, by design, as Hanrahan relentlessly pounded the strike zone with his fastball (something that dropped his walk rate from 3.4 to 2.1 per nine innings), rather than leaning on his filthy slider.

“He’s got two wipeout pitches, a fastball of 95-99 with command that dramatically improved this year. The slider last year was as good a slider as you’d see in baseball. This year, he didn’t have to use it as much. So it was still devastating but maybe not the devastating pitch of pitches,” said Pirates GM Neal Huntington. “He’s a gamer, a quality guy, a good teammate. There’s a lot of things to like about Joel Hanrahan.”

The Pirates are as familiar with those things as anyone. Yet there are market realities that Pittsburgh faces that mean that, if a team wanted to discuss Hanrahan’s availability, the Pirates — while not necessarily seeking out such a conversation — would have to listen.

Hanrahan is under team control for two more years, through the 2013 season, when he could be eligible for free agency, shortly after turning 32. While the Pirates under Huntington have moved to lock up key young core players, it remains to be seen whether Hanrahan — who occupies a position of significant year-to-year risk, and who is just over two years removed from carrying a 7.71 ERA over half a season with the Nationals – would represent such a player. Meanwhile, as much progress as Pittsburgh showed this year in contending through the first half, Huntington frequently notes that there is a lot of work left to do in building a team with perennial playoff aspirations, a notion that gained further credence when the Pirates lost two of every three games over the season’s final months.

Huntington believes that the Pirates’ best hopes of building a sustained contender in the NL Central is to stockpile young, key talent. They can do that by signing long-term deals with their own players that provide them with cost certainty, and the Pirates can also accomplish that goal by identifying players whom they haven’t – and, in some cases, won’t – sign to long-term contracts and trading them for younger players who can re-prime the pump.

All of that suggests that while Hanrahan is a significant contributor to Pittsburgh right now, no one in Pittsburgh – including the Pirates closer – is off limits in trade conversations.

“Obviously, we’d love Joel to be in a Pirate uniform as long as it can possibly happen. There’s a number of factors that go into that. We’ve got to weigh each one accordingly,” Huntington said this weekend in Randolph, Vt. “We recognize where our window is. We also recognize that we’re not going to be able to keep everybody in Pittsburgh, in a Pirate uniform, for the duration of their career.

“If there’s a deal out there that makes sense, we need to be open to it. That said, we’re not going to look to move him, but if somebody comes in and can fill multiple pieces for us or can fill a hole longer term for us, regardless of who it is – take the name off the back of the jersey – we always have to be willing to think about how we fill multiple pieces to be a better team for longer.

“We’re not looking to be a team that looks to go cyclical. We’re not going to put all of our eggs into one two-year basket. We want to be competitive year-in, year-out. In order to do that, we’re going to have to make some tough and challenging decisions. We’re also going to have to lock some guys up that want to be a Pirate, that want to be in Pittsburgh.”

Huntington is willing to take a broad-based approach to exploring player value. He is not locked into looking for prospects at any one position. Instead, his goal in trades is to get the maximum return for the long-term good of the franchise.

“The NBA, the NHL and the NFL, you can fill your immediate needs at that level by drafting the player you want, even if you’ve got to reach down the board to get the safety that you need,” said Huntington. “In baseball, if you trade for an A-ball player, you just get the best prospect value that you think you can get in return. At the major league level, if you’re getting major league-ready pieces, then maybe you do target.

“But the reality is that we need a lot of good players to be able to compete, and sometimes trading one for three is the best way to go about it. We’ve made some mistakes along the way. We’ve given up some players whose value was probably higher perception-wise than reality-wise. And that’s a challenge. We want to win. We do this to win. And we’re working hard to put the best team out there on Opening Day, but we also have to worry about next week, next month, next year as well.”

Such an approach to deal-making, at least hypothetically, could mesh with the strength of the Sox’ system, where the talent with the highest ceiling was in the lower minors in 2011. Meanwhile, Hanrahan could have significant appeal as a trade candidate, given that he is under team control for two years, and that his $1.4 million salary this past season suggests that he will cost less than free-agent closing options.

All the same, for now, the exercise of examining the potential fit between the Sox and Pirates (or the Pirates and any other team) remains a speculative undertaking. But Pittsburgh’s willingness to listen on inquiries about Hanrahan offers a reminder that the options for addressing Papelbon’s absence do not begin and end with the free agent market or internal options.

Instead, as great as Papelbon was in establishing himself as the greatest closer in Red Sox history, it is evident that this is one year in which there are numerous option for dealing with the departure of a bullpen cornerstone.

Read More: Hot Stove 2011, joel hanrahan, Jonathan Papelbon, neal huntington
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