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Sources: Red Sox trade Kyle Weiland and Jed Lowrie to Astros for Mark Melancon

12.14.11 at 12:47 pm ET

According to multiple industry sources, the Red Sox have traded right-hander Kyle Weiland and infielder Jed Lowrie to the Astros in exchange for right-handed reliever Mark Melancon. With the trade, the Sox acquire a pitcher who should pitch in the late innings — and someone with potentially untapped closer potential — in exchange for a pair of players with the ceiling of big league regulars (Lowrie as an everyday infielder, Weiland as either a back-of-the-rotation starter or, perhaps, a setup man) but whose roles for the 2012 Red Sox, and perhaps beyond, were limited.

Melancon pitched his first full season in 2011, putting up tremendous numbers out of the Astros bullpen. In 71 appearances, he went 8-4 with a 2.78 ERA, 66 strikeouts (8.0 per nine innings) and 26 walks (3.1 per nine) in 74 1/3 innings. He emerged as Houston’s closer in early May of last year and performed effectively in that role for the duration of the season, converting 20 of 23 save opportunities.

The 26-year-old has fewer than two years of big league service time, meaning that he is not yet arbitration eligible, and he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season. The Red Sox thus acquire a back-end bullpen option, adding some critical depth at a time when the team is contemplating moving Alfredo Aceves and/or Daniel Bard from the bullpen to the rotation.

“Love him,” one talent evaluator said of Melancon. “Think he can close.”

It remains to be seen whether he will be asked to perform in that role for the Red Sox in 2012. Nonetheless, the team is sold on the right-hander’s combination of stuff and makeup, and certainly, there is a sense that he could be a fit for that role, and that he could fulfill the blueprint for finding a closer that Sox GM Ben Cherington laid out on the Mut & Merloni show earlier this month.

“The thing about closers, as you guys know, there’€™s very few that keep doing it at an elite level over a long, long period of time. There’€™s very few Mariano Riveras and Trevor Hoffmans out there. So, the key a lot of times is finding the guy at the right point in his career when he’€™s ready to sort of go on a run and do it,” said Cherington. ‘€œThat’€™s our challenge moving forward. We feel like we have some internal options. We’€™ll continue to explore external options, both through trade and free agency. But it is a position that sometimes evolves from areas that you’€™re not even expecting. The Cardinals went into this season with Ryan Franklin as closer and I’€™m not even sure if he was in the ballpark when they won the World Series. It is a position that has turnover and is harder to predict, but it’€™s important and we know that for a team like this, as we go into the season, it’€™s important to have a closer defined. I’€™m not sure it’€™s important to have one next week or two weeks from now.’€

Melancon throws a 92-95 mph fastball (sitting at 94 mph) with above-average movement, resulting in a high groundball rate. His 81-84 mph power curveball is described by at least one AL evaluator as a “double-plus” offering, meaning it is an elite offering that is his primary out-pitch. He’s a long-limbed pitcher who is able to generate deception with his delivery, and the pitcher’s makeup (based on his work ethic and mental toughness) also are considered positive attributes.

In exchange for Melancon, the Red Sox part ways with a pair of players who could emerge as important pieces for the Astros but whose short-term roles in Boston were limited. Lowrie had shown flashes of being an above-average middle infielder in the majors, particularly during his rookie campaign in 2008 (when he was hitting over .300 with an OPS in excess of .800 until late-August, when a non-displaced wrist fracture limited his offensive impact); when he won the shortstop job in spring training in 2009 (before the wrist fracture resurfaced, requiring surgery and effectively rendering 2009 a lost season); when he returned to the big leagues in 2010 as one of the most productive middle infielders in the game, hitting .287 with a .381 OBP, .526 slugging mark, .907 OPS and nine homers in 54 games; and when an extraordinary hot streak in April allowed him to reclaim the job of everyday Red Sox shortstop.

However, injuries repeatedly intruded upon his production. The wrist injury limited him down the stretch in 2008 and made him a non-factor in 2009. He was unable to play during the first half of 2010 while recovering from mono. Then, after his hot start last year, he ended up injuring his left shoulder on a glancing collision with left-fielder Carl Crawford on May 27. That, in turn, sapped his production (he hit just .197 with a .253 OBP, .309 slugging mark and .562 OPS after the incident) and led to the loss of playing time, first due to a trip to the DL, then when Marco Scutaro reasserted himself as the everyday shortstop by out-producing Lowrie.

Last week, Sox GM Ben Cherington said that the team believed Lowrie — a 2005 sandwich pick selection out of Stanford — could be a productive everyday player, but that he was behind Scutaro on the depth chart to start the 2012 season with the Red Sox. With Jose Iglesias looming as an anticipated shortstop of the future, the window for Lowrie to claim a meaningful role on the Sox had narrowed to the point where he could be dealt, particularly given that Mike Aviles, acquired in the middle of the 2011 season, represented a viable utility option who can deliver some offense against left-handed pitching.

As for Weiland, he seemed slated to return to Triple-A Pawtucket to open the 2012 season had he remained with the Red Sox following a 2011 campaign that initially represented a breakthrough but that, in the end, featured Weiland being subjected to a monumental challenge given his experience level. Weiland dominated in the first half at Triple-A, adding a cutter to his fastball, curveball and changeup, and in the process dominating hitters from both sides of the plate. By early July, the organizational consensus became that Weiland is a pitcher with the potential to impact the club either as a reliever and a starter. His terrifically consistent performance in Pawtucket ‘€“ a 3.00 ERA, 99 strikeouts in 93 innings, a batting average that barely cracked the Mendoza Line, with lefties hitting just .174 against him — led to his big league debut just before the All-Star break, a no-decision in a game from which he was ejected for hitting Orioles DH Vladimir Guerrero.

After another big league start, Weiland went back down to the minors and never was quite in the same groove that he was at the start of the year. He was 8-10 with a 3.58 ERA, 126 strikeouts and 55 walks in 128 1/3 innings for the PawSox. He returned to the majors in September, and with the Sox’ rotation depth ravaged, he was thrust into three huge starts for the Sox: Two against the Rays, one against the Orioles. The Sox lost each of those starts. In seven games (five starts), Weiland had a 7.66 ERA in 24 2/3 innings.

Still, in bursts, the 25-year-old showed the ability to get swings and misses as well as groundballs in the majors, and Sox officials were convinced that he had the stuff to be a starting pitcher on a number of major league teams entering the 2012 season. However, the Red Sox envisioned him as a depth option to start the year, thus making him somewhat expendable, particularly given the emergence of Alex Wilson in the upper minors.

Melancon was originally drafted by the Yankees in the ninth round of the 2006 draft, and dealt to the Astros in the 2010 season as part of a package that resulted in Lance Berkman going to the Bronx.

When the Blue Jays acquired closer Sergio Santos — a pitcher who is controllable for six years — from the White Sox for prospect Nestor Molina at the winter meetings, there was a sense that Santos represented precisely the sort of pitcher (young, cheap, controllable) who would have fit exactly what the Sox needed. In Melancon, the Sox appear to have acquired a potentially comparable talent, at a cost that they considered fair.

That said, if Lowrie stays healthy and flourishes as an above-average everyday player, perhaps even with a ceiling of an All-Star bat, then the Astros will be extremely happy with the return. The same will be true if Weiland gives them a solid starter, capable of offering bulk innings, for several years to come.

In other words, it is a deal that could pay off well for both teams, albeit with risk for both sides.

Read More: Jed Lowrie, kyle weiland, mark melancon,
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