As we all saw in the 2016 postseason, elite relief pitchers are absolutely invaluable. While the best closers in the game won’t be used the same way during the regular season, adding a top arm can have a ripple effect throughout the bullpen. Even though the Detroit Tigers already have a capable closer in Francisco Rodriguez, Washington Nationals reliever Mark Melancon could be a free agent target. Melancon is a 31-year-old righthander with a good cutter-curveball combination who would add even more bullpen depth. Signing a top-flight closer like Melancon would allow K-Rod to take on a setup role, which could relieve many Tigers fans concerned about some of his late inning collapses in 2016.
Melancon made $9.6 million in 2016 in his final year of arbitration and is likely seeking a deal worth at least $10 million per year. FanRag’s Jon Heyman predicted Melancon might garner a deal worth $56 million over four years. He is considered to be among to top free agents this offseason and is one of the top three closers on the market. Salary aside, Melancon would be a good fit for Detroit, who is always on the lookout for quality bullpen pieces.
Who is he?
Melancon was selected by the New York Yankees in the ninth round of the 2006 MLB amateur draft. He had Tommy John surgery in October of 2006 and missed the entire 2007 season as a result. Melancon bounced back in 2008, pitching at three minor league levels. He made his MLB debut with the Yankees just after his 24th birthday in April of 2009. The Yankees traded Melancon to the Houston Astros at the 2010 trade deadline, and the Astros traded him to the Boston Red Sox after the 2011 season. He finally landed with the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2012-2013 offseason in a six-player deal.
It was with the Pirates that Melancon finally came into his own. He made the National League All-Star team for the first time in his career in 2013, when he put up a stellar 0.81 ERA and held opponents to a .189 batting average in the first half. Melancon was selected to the NL All-Star team in 2015 and 2016, and he won the National League Reliever of the Year Award after the 2015 season when he led the league with 51 converted saves. The Pirates traded Melancon to the Nationals at the 2016 trade deadline and he finished the season with a 1.64 ERA in 71 1⁄3 innings pitched.
Melanson’s biggest weapon is his cutter. According to FanGraphs, it was 13.6 runs above average in 2016. He threw it nearly 59 percent of the time, and he had a batting average against (BAA) of .231 on the pitch. Over 20 percent of his strikeouts ended with the cutter. His next weapon is a knuckle curveball, which was 5.8 runs above average. His BAA on the curve in 2016 was a paltry .136, and over 40 percent of his strikeouts were on this pitch. He threw the knuckle curve about 26 percent of the time.
Why should we care?
A pitcher of Melancon’s caliber would definitely bolster a Tigers bullpen that seems to struggle every season. He struck out over eight batters per nine innings in 2016, which is pretty good for a ground ball pitcher. He only walked 1.51 batters per nine innings, had a 5.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and gave up 0.38 home runs per nine. His left on base (LOB) percentage was over 80 percent (MLB average is 70 percent) and his overall BAA was just .202. Perhaps the most impressive stat is Melancon’s hard contact percentage of 23 percent. MLB average for pitchers was 31 percent in 2016, and 20 percent is considered incredible.
Melancon has been quite reliable throughout his career and would be an asset to a bullpen that lacks consistency. He has had a sub-3.00 ERA in five of the last six seasons, and had a WHIP under 1.00 in each of the last four seasons. In addition, Comerica Park is a pitcher-friendly ballpark that Melancon would thrive in. Over 54 percent of his balls in play were ground balls, which would mix well with Detroit’s strong middle infield defense.
Why should we stay away?
Melancon had Tommy John surgery in 2006, and there is a certain amount of risk that accompanies that situation. Pitchers can occasionally require a second Tommy John surgery if they log a substantial number of innings after their first procedure. Melancon has pitched in nine full seasons between the minor leagues and MLB since his surgery. Considering the fact that he is and always has been a reliever, he has not thrown as many innings, so this may or may not be a concern.
Another possible issue is the financial commitment and contract length Melancon is looking for in a potential suitor. He has pitched for five MLB teams in his seven-year career, and is surely seeking some kind of stability this offseason. His upcoming salary demands as one of the best relievers on the market are likely out of the question for a Tigers team with so much payroll already tied up in few players. If Detroit is aiming to get cheaper and younger in 2017, Melancon would not help solve that issue.
Will he end up in Detroit?
It is highly unlikely the Tigers will sign Melancon. He is almost certain to be cost-prohibitive, as $10 million-plus per year is more than the Tigers should be willing to give to a pitcher who has never pitched more than 80 innings in a season. Also, the amount of risk he carries due to the Tommy John is a concern, especially considering his age. If the Tigers plan on competing in 2017, they could not afford to sign Melancon only for him to be injured long-term during the season. That said, he is a top free agent in a light free agent class, and will surely cash in some place.