Another year, another team trades a closer. And once again, it's the Red Sox doing the buying. The Pittsburgh Pirates dealt their closer, Joel Hanrahan, along with infielder Brock Holt to Boston for 1B/OF Jerry Sands, RP Mark Melancon, INF Ivan DeJesus Jr., and P Stolmy Pimentel.
On the surface, this isn't as bad of a trade as their last two, where Boston gave up breakout star Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey, and a promising, but oft injured asset in Jed Lowrie for Melancon. Still, Pittsburgh probably isn't going to be complaining too much about a return that could potentially provide more upside than what they already had.
Hanrahan was effectively wild this past year, still striking out better than a fourth of the batters he was facing, but gave up walks and homeruns at an alarming rate, with major spikes in his BB/9 and HR/FB% compared to his stellar 2011 campaign. The saving grace for him this past season was a career-low BABIP (.225), which lead to a career-high Left On-Base Percentage (89.7%) that allowed him to come out unscathed on many an occasion. Simply put, Hanrahan was very lucky, just as the Pirates are now to get something of value for him. That's not to say Hanrahan's numbers won't come back down a little, but pitching in a hitter-friendly ballpark like Fenway...against a hitter-heavy division like the AL East...let's just say the forecast is awful cloudy for him this coming season.
So where does Axford fit into all this? After all, coming off of a poor season, his value is definitely lower right now. However, all hope for him is not lost.
Axford suffered from similar ailments that Hanrahan did this past season, seeing both his walk and homerun rates spike, only in his case getting no love from BABIP. To say he was unlucky wouldn't be telling the whole story, as his .307 BABIP was right in line with his .308 BABIP from 2010, and he was producing groundballs at a rate similar to what he had been doing in the past. Much of Axford's struggles came from his command of the strike zone, where he was unable to get ahead in the count as much as he was in the past, which put opposing batters into a lot of hitter's counts and allowed them to square up more easily on his big fastball, as evidenced by his 24% line drive rate this past season (a 10% increase from 2011).
Should Axford find the ability to get his walk rate back down, I think it's sensible to expect him to revert back a little more to form in 2013. Maybe not another consecutive save streak with a 1.95 ERA, but maybe somewhere in between these past two seasons, which would actually reflect his 2010 peripherals quite a bit. Were this to be the case, his value would increase once more, making him an intriguing trade target for other teams in need of bullpen help. Teams right now are not afraid to deal talent for a "proven" closer, especially with pitching becoming an increasingly more prioritized asset. Not that this should be news to anybody, as we all just watched the Giants just win two World Series in the last three years behind an a stellar pitching staff. So in this market, a pitcher who has found a lot of recent success is going to command quite a bit in return.
Talking theoretical success can be a bit transparent, though, so perhaps it's best to look at what sort of value Axford has right now. As it stands, Axford is pre-arb eligible and isn't due to become a free agent until 2017, at the earliest. That would give the team acquiring him four years of control before having to shell out any sort of big payday. That in itself is a valuable asset, especially considering what he was able to accomplish in his two seasons prior to this past one, where he posted a combined 4 WAR, which is pretty darn good for a relief pitcher. However, comparing his up and down seasons should be one of the major motivating factors in trading a high-profile reliever: unpredictability.
Baseball is a tough game to predict without even looking deeper at one specific part of it. That's why there's an entire site devoted to it, appropriately titled "You Can't Predict Baseball". A 10-game slump for an everyday outfielder is a small bump in the road; one that they can easily smooth it out over the next 40 or 50 games. For a reliever though? A 10-game slump can directly affect their use in the long run and limit their opportunities to snap out of that funk, which could really make or break their season because of how large a part of it that stretch is. This is also why it's ill advised for teams to offer long, multi-year deals to relievers, simply because the team may only be getting a couple truly good years out of them. Knowing all this though, why would any team give up something of value then?
It has been less about teams giving up something truly "valuable" as much as they've been giving up "potential". For the Twins in acquiring Matt Capps, they had to surrender a promising catching prospect in Wilson Ramos. The tricky thing about prospects is they're yet unproven at the major league level, and Ramos was in a place where he looked to be blocked for a long time by then reigning AL MVP, Joe Mauer. Ramos, of course, then had himself a good 2011 where he was worth 3.3 WAR, and despite missing most of 2012, he appears to be a solid backstop for the Nationals for years to come. Then there was that one Reddick guy the A's got for Bailey, but it's not like he turned out to be good or anything...
Teams may be wising up on what they want to to give away for a closer, though. This could be evidenced by the recent Hanrahan trade. But there's also the fact that the Red Sox are getting just one season of Hanrahan, whereas the previously mentioned relievers all had more years of control left on them when they were traded. With the returns based on a lot more promise, there's obviously a bit of a gamble involved, but it's not as though there isn't already a gamble in trusting a closer to remain consistently good year in and year out. If the right situation arises, it could be a wise move for the Brewers to strike while the iron is hot. The odds Axford gets traded this offseason seem extremely slim, but should he have himself a very solid bounceback season, this could be a storyline to keep in mind for the near future.