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The Red Sox Manuever with Melancon

The Red Sox and Astros made an interesting little trade today. Our friends to the north acquired 26-year-old ex-Yankees right-hander Mark Melancon from the Astros in exchange for infielder Jed Lowrie and righty pitching prospect Kyle Weiland.

You will recall Melancon as a 2006 9th-round draftee who put up excellent minor league numbers in the Yankees system but couldn’t get more than a cup of coffee with the Yankees. Part of the problem was that his command, excellent in the minors, wandered a bit during his brief trials, part of it was that the Yankees just don’t like their own kids very much. Melancon got 15 games and 20.1 innings to prove himself in the majors, which is nothing. He walked too many and struck out too few during those appearances, but also allowed just one home run, which hinted at his real skill, which involves both getting grounders and strikeouts, the deadliest combination for a pitcher.

Melancon went to Houston as part of the ill-fated Lance Berkman deal, a trade that was the right idea but somehow netted the Yankees the wrong version of the player—the Cardinals got the correct one the following season. He began to close for the Astros after Brandon Lyon burst into a ball of flame. He wasn’t great, but it was his first full season in the majors and the team behind him was miserable. He should be better, especially with those grounders—among pitchers with 70 or more innings last year, Melancon ranked tenth in the majors in ground-ball percentage.

The Astros need, well, anybody more than they need a closer, one of those spots that’s actually fairly easy to fill when you think about it. In Lowrie, they get a shortstop, which they didn’t have, or a third baseman, which they didn’t have either, or maybe a second baseman, which they are also short of (yes, I know about Chris Johnson and Jose Altuve, but the former is a replacement-level type at best and the latter could be good but isn’t ready). Lowrie’s defense is as suspect as his ability to remain healthy, but he has above-average pop for the middle infield. The Astros also pick up a pitcher who looks like a solid back-of-the-rotation starter in Weiland. This seems like a terrific trade for them—one good reliever for two potentially solid pieces.

The Red Sox lose some rotation pitching depth in Weiland while picking up a hurler who will either set up or close. Jon Papelbon is gone and Daniel Bard is supposedly headed for the rotation, so Melancon could be the new endgame. Normally I’d be all for taking a pitcher capable of starting and letting him accumulate some innings (see Chamberlain, Joba) but Bard has been very successful in the pen, may not have the requisite off-speed pitches to get through the lineup twice. A eighth/ninth inning combo of Melancon and Bard, in whatever order, seems like a stronger argument than Melancon and… somebody. Maybe that somebody proves to be Andrew Bailey, but even then, that would give the Red Sox three solid bullpen arms from the seventh on, in the way that the Yankees often prospered with David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, and Mariano Rivera last season.

In the last few minutes, they also announced the addition of Nick Punto, a fine defender and non-hitter, to replace Lowrie as their all-around utility guy. Punto hit quite well in an abbreviated season for the championship Cardinals last year, but if he plays more than a little, the Sox are in trouble. This is true of most utility infielders, so I guess I should emphasize that Punto’s glove has some value.

There are so many other moves yet to be made that it’s hard to assess the deal—it’s just one tree in a forest we haven’t yet seen. I have been more skeptical about Boston’s chances this year than most; it’s possible that they may yet trade themselves into a more obviously difficult position, with Bard in the rotation and little to fall back on.

Meanwhile, the world awaits the winner of the Yu Darvish bidding. Remember, the only thing that Darvish has in common with Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa is nationality. Otherwise, this is a totally different model of pitcher, almost certainly a better one than his predecessors.