Signed RHP Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million contract. [12/5]
The Giants’ 2016 season fizzled for a number of reasons. They had an aging and injury-riddled outfield, and a thin starting rotation. They made a unique series of deadline deals to bring in Matt Moore, Will Smith, and Eduardo Nunez, but the net effect of those deals was muted when the team ended up needing to slide Nunez in to replace Matt Duffy (because Duffy went to Tampa Bay for Moore).
That the team ended up making a desperation trade for Gordon Beckham in late September underscores the real, underlying problem that sank the Giants in the NLDS: great teams don’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul. Depth matters, and the Giants didn’t have it anywhere on their roster.
If the team had lost to the Cubs because of those larger issues—if the best team in baseball had finished San Francisco off in the wild, marathon Game 3, or if they’d seen Moore more often and had been able to knock him around in Game 4—the Giants’ brass might not have felt pressure to strike this deal for Melancon. Their bullpen, which they kept together so long that a collapse was inevitable (relievers just don’t stay good for seven years), did finally disband at season’s end, but the powerful perception that the team needed to replace the likes of Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, and Javier Lopez with an elite closer grew mostly out of the shape of the final nail in the coffin.
The Cubs came back from three runs down against the Giants, knocked them out of the playoffs, dealt them their first series loss in October since the Barry Bonds-Jeff Kent era, and because it was the bullpen that cracked most conspicuously (in that game, and throughout the final month), this kind of move was a natural response.
Given the peculiar desperation that has seemed to hang over the Giants, a worse move was certainly possible. Melancon is an elite reliever. Once a promising Yankees farmhand, it took him a few years (and a few relocations) to find his footing in the majors. What Melancon was missing, of course, wasn't stuff or command or even poise, but identity. He had five pitches when he came up, which is to a relief pitcher what having two starting quarterbacks is to a football team. He had a splitter and a sinker, and he threw his curveball, his four-seam fastball, and his cutter almost at random, unwilling to commit to any of them and risk living without another.
That kind of worked in New York, worked well in his brief time in Houston, and then loudly stopped working when he reached Boston in 2012. When the gods of relief pitching close a door, though, sometimes there's just one fewer potential path to screwing everything up. In the hands of the Pirates’ coaching staff, Melancon all but scrapped the splitter and the sinker, subjugated the four-seamer to the cutter, and learned how to pitch inside--especially to left-handed hitters.
Ever since, he's been dominant. He walks roughly one batter every other week, and gives up a home run roughly every other month. The cutter and curve induce consistently weak contact, and most of it is on the ground. All of that is to Melancon’s credit, and is not to be taken lightly, but there's downside risk here, too. It's worth noting, for one thing, that Melancon has gotten more than three outs in a single appearance fewer times than he has given up a home run since the start of 2013 (7 vs. 10). It also shouldn't be ignored that his velocity has tailed off over the last two seasons, from a bit less than 94 miles per hour on his average cutter in 2014 to mostly 91-92 last year. He's 32 years old and, despite a decade of good arm health since Tommy John surgery, is not exactly a low-mileage bullpen arm.
There probably isn't a strictly one-inning relief pitcher alive who is statistically worth the price the Giants paid for Melancon. However, not every free agent signing can be rational and perfectly in line with intrinsic value. Melancon is the right kind of free agent on whom to bet: one of the very best in baseball at what he does. If he loses effectiveness or gets hurt, the Giants will have paid a heavy price for a pretty low potential reward. That's in the nature of signing free agent relievers, though, and the team’s choice to ride with their aging relief corps for the handful of seasons leading up to this winter left them needing to sign some free agent relievers anyway.
All in all, general manager Bobby Evans made the best of his current circumstances. That those circumstances were less than ideal, and a product of the Giants' own previous decisions, need not sour us on this move in isolation. The back of the Giants’ bullpen (probably) just got a lot better, helping cement the team’s status as a legitimate contender in 2017. The twist, of course, is that this deal includes an opt-out after 2018, and is front-loaded such that it’s fairly likely (unless he gets hurt or his career is otherwise in freefall) that Melancon will elect free agency at that point.
For a relief pitcher, an opt-out is a really strange animal. The narrative that crept up last winter held that opt-outs might, in some cases, be team-friendly. That’s pretty plainly wrong. If a player chooses to opt out, it’s because he’s been good enough that the team would surely love to keep him at the specified terms of the deal from which he walks away. The risk is all on the team’s side, which is why contracts with opt-outs tend to be creative solutions to the problem of a given team not being able to offer top dollar, or a player not wanting to sign with the team that does.
In this case, that’s all still true, and it throws the total value of the contract into even sharper relief. However, there’s something inexplicably strange about the dynamic of this clause in the case of a player no one expects to be good over the full term of a long-term deal. Long-term deals for relievers aggravate stat-heads precisely because a relief pitcher has (almost) no chance of remaining the same player over the life of a long-term deal, and little chance of remaining as good a player. It seems more than usually possible, because Melancon is a relief pitcher but still a very good one, that he will find himself in a position to make more than $28 million over two years at the end of 2018, but yet, that the Giants will be relieved to see him take them off the hook for that remaining money.
Maybe that’s illogical. Maybe it’s because a relief pitcher’s utility is tied more closely to a team’s competitive window than any other player’s, and because the Giants seem to be nearing the end of their current window. In any event, news of the opt-out means this is a worse deal than we thought. It really strains the benefit of the doubt I was inclined to give the team on this deal. Yet, it’s not the same kind of glaring problem, the same poison pill within the deal, that opt-outs for players like Johnny Cueto and Yoenis Cespedes were last winter.