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December 12, 2012 at 11:02 am ET
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The Joel Hanrahan conundrum

Lost in the analysis, angst and jubilation over the Royals and Rays big swap this week was the news the Pirates had re-signed reliever Jason Grilli to a two-year, $6.75 million contract. Picked off the scrap heap in the summer of 2011, Grilli has been one of the savvier finds of Neal Huntington’s tenure as GM, although that probably says more about Huntington than Grilli.

Regardless, something of a bidding war broke out for the 36 year-old reliever’s services this winter, with Grilli and his agent Gary Sheffield wading through offer from multiple teams. This revealed two particularly interesting tidbits: there’s still an inflated market for bullpen help, and that Gary freaking Sheffield is employed as Grilli’s agent.

In the end, Grilli took less money to play in Pittsburgh, a nice story, but one in which any grand excitement once again probably says more about the state of the Pirates over the last 20 years than it does about Grilli. With him now in the fold, attention can turn to a much more interesting question for 2013: What do the Pirates do with Joel Hanrahan?

Acquired as a flame-throwing lottery ticket with considerable control problems in a 2009 trade with the Washington Nationals, Hanrahan blossomed in Pittsburgh. Handed the closer’s job in 2011, the burly righty has saved 76 games since then, with a 2.24 ERA while striking out a batter an inning. That said, his walk rate did more than double this past season, casting doubt on the longevity of his newfound ability to find the strike zone.¬† Eligible for arbitration, Hanrahan figures to pull in about $7 million this coming season, and is set to become a free agent the following fall. In other words, a lot for a relief pitcher, especially for a team on a limited budget like the Pirates.

Given how much the market still values saves and high-end closers, Hanrahan at his peak, say between July 2011 and July 2012, probably could have fetched a pretty fair return on the trade market. Unfortunately, the spike in walks at the end of last year, coupled with his current contract situation now make a far less valuable commodity. Huntington flat out stated the trade prospects for Hanrahan this off-season aren’t great. The rumored names in potential Hanrahan swaps (Chris Capuano, Brennan Boesch) paint an even bleaker picture.

The most interesting take on the Rays/Royals trade from earlier this week comes from Grantland’s Jonah Keri. Rather than positing what Wil Myers might become, or whether or not the Royals can now win 90 games, Keri examines the Rays process. It’s not about thinking narrowly, deciding that your team needs players that fit specific roles and then doing whatever it takes to acquire them. ¬†Rather it’s about thinking broadly and creatively about how best to use your assets to address a broader concern: how do we build the best baseball team possible.

It’s fitting that Grilli would sign and Hanrahan would become expendable the same week the Rays pulled off ¬†that deal. ¬†Waiting until now to move Hanrahan, when his value is at the lowest point in eighteen months runs completely contrary to that philosophy.

Baseball history shows without fail that saves are an overvalued statistic and that closers are fickle beasts, unlikely to sustain their performance over a long period. ¬†It’s hard to imagine the moving Hanrahan at any point between July 2011 and July 2012 would have drastically changed the outcome for the Pirates over the course of either of those two seasons. Yes, they competed for half a summer each time, but Hanrahan was far from the main reason they did, and he was also far from the main reason they fell apart both times as well.

The Pirates instead thought narrowly, not recognizing that despite gaudy save numbers, Hanrahan’s contributions to the team could be replaced, and that they had a limited time to turn him into a more useful long term asset.

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