Thursday, December 27, 2012

Red Sox trade for Hanrahan

After completing a flurry of moves earlier in the month, the Boston Red Sox bolstered their bullpen by trading for All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan. Hanrahan will supplant Andrew Bailey, a two-time All-Star himself, as the team's primary closer. New skipper John Farrell will relegate Bailey to eighth inning duties.

Bailey was a huge disappointment in his Red Sox debut. The 2009 AL Rookie of the Year injured his thumb during Spring Training and required reconstructive surgery. The injury-prone reliever did not return until August 14th, at which point Boston was below .500 and fading out of the playoff picture. Bailey pitched well initially and replaced Alfredo Aceves as Bobby Valentine's closer down the stretch, but struggled mightily in September. He saved only six games in nine chances last year and finished the season with a bloated 7.04 ERA, not exactly what Ben Cherington had in mind when he traded Josh Reddick and two prospects to acquire Bailey and Ryan Sweeney from Billy Beane's Oakland A's last winter.

364 days later, the Red Sox sent Mark Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, Ivan De Jesus and Jerry Sands to Pittsburgh in exchange for Hanrahan and second baseman Brock Holt. Hanrahan has quietly been one of baseball's better closers in the last two years. In 2011, his first season as an everyday closer, he saved 40 games, posted a tidy 1.83 ERA and made his first All-Star team. He was named to the All-Star team again last year even though his ERA rose by nearly a full run and his walk rate more than doubled. On the bright side, his K/9 ratio jumped from 8.0 to 10.1, a figure right in line with his career 9.9 mark, and he still saved 36 games.

However, there's underlying evidence that his recent success has been enhanced by good fortune. In 2011 just one of the 54 fly balls he allowed left the park. Last year his opponents mustered a paltry .225 BABiP against him, and Hanrahan managed to strand almost 90 percent of runners that reached base against him. Accordingly, his 4.45 FIP, 4.28 xFIP, 4.26 tERA and 3.80 SIERA were all well above his 2.72 ERA, indicating that he did not pitch nearly as well as his ERA suggests.

Regression to the mean combined with the transition to a less favorable pitching environment could spell trouble for Hanrahan in his American League debut. He's still a plus reliever, just not as dominant as some of his numbers suggest. He's no Jonathan Papelbon but represents a significant upgrade over the wildly inconsistent Aceves-Bailey tandem from last year. Assuming Hanrahan stays healthy and holds on to his closer's job, I'd expect around 35 saves and an ERA in the low-threes from him next year. 2013 is a contract year for the 31 year-old, so hopefully that extra motivation translates into strong results on the field.

The Red Sox are also reportedly pursuing first baseman Adam LaRoche, which indicates the team might back out from the three-year agreement they reached with Mike Napoli. Talks have stalled with the All-Star catcher because of a hip condition discovered during his physical. This health risk prompted Boston's front office to change the language of his new contract to protect themselves should he miss an extended period of time.

LaRoche, 33, is coming off a career year of sorts in which he won a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and finished sixth in the NL MVP race. The Washington Nationals would like to bring him back but aren't willing to offer more than two guaranteed years. Unlike Napoli, LaRoche is a first baseman by trade who defends his position better than the converted backstop. I'd still rather have the right-handed slugger, who's two years younger, loves hitting in Fenway and would add more balance to Boston's lineup.

But Laroche is a good plan B. After all, a consistent player who belted 33 home runs last season and amassed 100 RBI in 2010 and 2012 wouldn't be a bad consolation prize.

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