Pittsburgh looks to replace Melancon
By Zack Zeigler
One thing the Pittsburgh Pirates have had secured on their team over the last couple years is a dynamite closer at the end of the ball game. Ever since Matt Capps took over the role before the 2007 season, there has always been someone reliable for the ninth inning. In that time, we have seen Octavio Dotel, Joel Hanrahan and Mark Melancon occupy that role.
Those four closers combined to save 293 games in 333 chances, which is an 88 percent save rate over the last 10 seasons.
Melancon set the the all-time saves record in a season for the Pirates with his 51 saves during the 2015 season. However, Melancon is gone, and the Pirates are dealing with an issue they haven’t had to worry about in a long time and that’s inconsistency at the back end of the bullpen.
The current closer listed on the Pirates depth chart is left-hander Tony Watson. Watson was lights out in the eighth inning role when he was setting up for Melancon, but the transition to the closer’s role has not been too kind to him.
He saved just 15 out of the 20 games he came in for, and in the month of September, when he really started seeing time in the ninth inning, his ERA hiked up to 5.06 in that month. Watson may have been a great set-up man for Pittsburgh, but he may be better in that role.
The other closing option the Pirates have on their roster is the man they acquired for Melancon in Felipe Rivero. Rivero had ups and downs with the Pirates going 1-3 with an ERA of 3.29.
One positive I see in Rivero is his ability to pump the fastball at 95 plus. His strikeout rate is good, as he struck out 38 batters in 27.1 innings of work, but he also walked 18 batters in that same amount of innings. Another problem with Rivero again is the little experience at the position. He has been given three save opportunities as a big leaguer and has blown all three of them.
Looking at the free agent poll for 2017, there are plenty of veteran relievers on the market who would fit well in the Pirates ninth inning role. With what projects to be a young Pirates rotation in 2017, they will have to have that reliable back end who can come in and record the outs when the team needs them the most to help seal victories.
The first name that jumps out to me is a familiar one to most Pirates fans in Melancon himself. Melancon is a free agent, and the Pirates have an opportunity to bring him back. Melancon continued the success he saw in Pittsburgh after leaving going 1-1 with a 1.82 ERA including saving 17 out of 18 games for the Nationals, that one blown save came against the Pirates, ironically.
As mentioned before, Melancon does hold the record for the most saves in a single season for any Pirates player in history. He found his grove when he came to the Pirates in 2014 and never looked back, even coining the term “Mark the Shark.” In his career with Pittsburgh, his ERA was under 2.00 in every season accept 2015, when it was 2.23.
He strikes out a decent number of batters and has proven his worth over the last few seasons with Pittsburgh. Many fans were sad to see him go at the deadline, but sometimes that is the nature of the baseball business.
Another name on the free agent market that sticks out to me is veteran Brad Ziegler. Ziegler spent the 2016 season with both the Boston Red Sox and the Arizona Diamondbacks and went a combined 4-7 with a 2.25 ERA including 22 saves in 28 chances while striking out 58 and walking 26 in 68 innings of work.
Ziegler has been a guy targeted at the trade deadline by the Pirates over the last several seasons, but a deal was never reached between the Pirates and Diamondbacks. Ziegler is a veteran presence who has proven experience as a closer throughout his major league career. He has saved 85 of his 115 save opportunities throughout his career, a 73% clip. If pitching coach Ray Searage gets his hands on Ziegler, he could be one of the most dominant closers in all of baseball.
No matter who the Pirates chose to go with as their closer for 2017 one thing is for sure, they will have to be reliable. With a young starting rotation, the bullpen will be taxed more than it has been in recent years and the Pirates need a guy who will be able to step in and get the save when he is needed. I have high hopes for the Pirates in 2017, and it all starts with the back end of the bullpen saving games and raising the Jolly Roger.