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Mark Melancon trade analysis: Did the Pirates get enough to justify selling?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I was out for most of the night working, so I'll skip coverage of the Pirates' latest depressing loss to the Brewers and focus on the Mark Melancon trade, which I'm sure is what everyone wants to talk about anyway.

I understand the trade, but I don't love it. In the days leading up to the deal, when the possibility of a Melancon trade was being discussed, a number of commenters and tweeters wrote something along the lines of, "The Pirates have to get something for Melancon." This idea was usually presented as if it were obvious, but it wasn't obvious to me.

Melancon was, of course, eligible for free agency after the season, and the Pirates were very unlikely to re-sign him. But imagine they'd gotten to this point in the season with holes in their bullpen rather than in their rotation, and they'd traded for a Melancon-type reliever as a rental. Would such a trade have been bad for the Pirates because they wouldn't "get anything" for the reliever other than the innings he would pitch down the stretch? Perhaps not, which is why the Bucs' trades for rentals like Joakim Soria and J.A. Happ last season were actually very good ones even though those players were set to become free agents.

The idea that the Pirates had to "get something" for Melancon perhaps made the most sense in the context of the trade market in general and the trade market for relievers in particular, in which we've recently seen Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel net their old teams enormous returns. But Melancon was never likely to net that kind of return for the Pirates, because what the Cubs and Red Sox paid for when they acquired Chapman and Kimbrel, respectively, was dominance, and Melancon, good as he is, isn't dominant. He consistently outperforms his peripherals and doesn't have overpowering velocity, so potential trade partners were likely to view him with more trepidation than they would have viewed Chapman or Kimbrel, and give up less. Lo and behold, the Nationals did give up much less than the Cubs or Red Sox did. That should have been expected.

The Pirates, meanwhile, are a team in the midst of a playoff race. They could easily have kept their excellent closer to pitch down the stretch for them, and maybe pitch for them in the playoffs. In fact, that probably should have been their default position.

That isn't the position the Pirates ultimately took, though, so let's try to see why. This deal isn't a traditional one for a contending team, but there were definitely reasons for it, and although I'm not a fan of the deal overall, it's not hard to imagine what the Bucs might have been thinking.

First, Melancon will only pitch about 20 to 30 more innings the rest of the season. That's it. Maybe they'll be really important innings, and maybe there will be a few additional and potentially extremely important innings in the playoffs. But we're still talking about a very limited number of innings. The difference between Melancon pitching those innings for the Pirates and newcomer Felipe Rivero pitching them should be quite small in terms of runs allowed, even if we assume that there's a big gap in skill between Melancon and Rivero. (Tony Watson will close in Melancon's absence, so Rivero won't be pitching exactly the innings Melancon would have pitched, but he'll effectively replace Melancon in the Bucs' bullpen.) Maybe the Pirates will get in a bunch of tough one-run ballgames, and maybe their weakened bullpen will blow some leads. If that happens, this deal will have real costs. But the odds are that Melancon's absence won't be that big a problem, given the limited time frame.

Meanwhile, it looks like the Pirates really are getting something in Rivero and Taylor Hearn. Rivero is controllable for five seasons after this one. He throws blazingly hard for a lefty, strikes out a ton of batters, and has pretty good control. Those are all traits the Bucs can work with. His 4.53 ERA this season is mostly irrelvevant, since his peripherals are significantly better than that. Besides, the Pirates have found good pitchers in the past by looking for guys who have good stuff and were underperforming their peripherals. That's how they got Melancon in the first place, and Joel Hanrahan before him.

Also, the Bucs know how to coach pitchers. Perceptions of their ability to turn fix struggling arms have recently been somewhat tarnished with their misadventures last offseason, but Rivero isn't Ryan Vogelsong, or even Jon Niese -- again, Rivero throws in the mid- to high 90s and has good strikeout rates and control. It doesn't take a genius to see the value in that or to imagine how the Pirates might be able to help him become very, very good. Hearn is still in Class A and is just a lottery ticket, but like Rivero, he throws hard and has upside.

This next part of the argument in favor of the trade is perhaps the toughest pill to swallow. When a team is deciding how to approach the trade deadline, it must decide how to balance present and future. The Pirates are still in contention for a playoff spot, which suggests they should be buyers, giving up future value in order to win in the present.

Realistically, though, their chances of making the playoffs this season, and of advancing once they get there, are limited. The Bucs now need to leapfrog three teams to grab the second Wild Card spot, and might have to face another excellent starter -- perhaps Jose Fernandez or Noah Syndergaard -- in the Wild Card game.

And let's be honest about this: The Pirates haven't been very good so far this season. They've allowed one more run than they've scored. Their starting rotation has been abysmal. Their bullpen has been scattershot. Andrew McCutchen hasn't hit. The Pirates we've seen so far this season don't look like a playoff team. There are ways for them to get better down the stretch -- maybe Jameson Taillon, a now-healthy Gerrit Cole and a deadline acquisition could help improve the rotation, for example. But this Pirates team doesn't look like a typical contender.

So when the Bucs deal their star closer, appearing to sacrifice some equity in the 2016 season in exchange for equity in future seasons, I'm not sure I find too much fault with that, as hard as it is to say. Fangraphs currently gives the Pirates a 0.4 percent chance of winning the World Series. Is that 0.4 percent chance really worth passing on a good opportunity to improve in 2017 and beyond? Maybe not, and I think many Pirates fans actually intuitively understand that, which is why we've seen far fewer calls than usual for the Bucs to empty their farm system to acquire star veterans to help the team this year. This season isn't a lost cause -- at all -- but it would do the Pirates no good to be unrealistic about their actual chances, which are limited.

This unfortunate line of argument might be somewhat easier to swallow, though, if the Bucs had landed potential star-caliber talent in return for Melancon, and it doesn't look like they did. As interesting as Rivero is, he's still just a reliever (even though he started as recently as 2014 and has three workable pitches). And Hearn is so far from the big leagues that it's hard to project he'll be anything at all at this point. Rivero is an asset, but he's the kind of asset the Pirates should have been able to afford to acquire through other means, like the free agent market.

That's the main reason I can't quite come around to this trade. The Pirates did "get something" for Melancon. But I'm not sure they gained enough post-2016 equity to zag when they should have been zigging. It's an interesting deal, and I look forward to seeing how Rivero's career in Pittsburgh develops. But given what they got, I would have preferred the Pirates take the more traditional route and let their star closer help them make a playoff run.