The Chicago Cubs might not the most aggressive shoppers in the free agent market this offseason, given their young core of position players and few exiting free agents, but it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of potential interest to the team.
These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs and talent levels.
Previously: Kenley Jansen
Performance in 2016
Mark Melancon put up very good numbers in 2016 with the Pirates and Nationals, beating his strikeout rate, walk rate, ERA, and FIP from his also dominant 2015 campaign. As he is this offseason, he was considered the third most attractive available reliever at the trade deadline, then behind Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, but he performed quite well for the Nationals after the trade.
Unlike Kenley Jansen or Chapman, however, you won’t find Melancon’s name near the very top of all the various MLB reliever leaderboards, but for reasons that might actually be encouraging (and familiar).
Like Kyle Hendricks, Melancon is the type of pitcher that can successfully and consistently limit hard contact. Among all qualified relievers, he posted the third highest soft-hit rate, and 17th lowest hard-hit rate. But before you line up your rooting interests behind Melancon, there is more to know.
Performance Before 2016
Specifically, we should note Melancon improved his strikeout rate and walk rate a lot in 2016. In his final full season with the Pirates (2015), Melancon’s walk rate was 4.8% (which is admittedly still pretty great), but his strikeout rate was a nearly three full percentage points lower (21.2%) than in 2016.
Most dominant relievers, or at least ones that are going to command upwards of $50 million tend to have elite strikeout rates (or at least something closer to 30%). Melancon’s career strikeout rate is actually just 22.8%, which is around league average.
Indeed, in Dave Cameron’s free agent landmines piece, he calls Melancon one of the pitchers to avoid in 2017 for that very reason. But I want to be clear, Melancon has without question been one of the better closers in baseball for four straight seasons. He’s just never been in that elite tier, and that’s mostly because of his strikeout rate.
Projection for 2017 and Beyond
While we saw what limiting hard contact and inducing weak contact can do for a starting pitcher (Kyle Hendricks), we also know that relievers play a very different game.
The ability to consistently strike batters out becomes uniquely important when you enter games with runners already on base, or when a single ball in play can be the difference between a win and a loss. If, for some reason, Melancon is unable to keep up those soft-contact ways, he could be the type of pitcher that experiences a steep and dramatic fall off.
And the early projections from Depth Charts seem to forecast such a fall:
2017: 65.0 innings, 3.22 ERA (3.23 FIP), 1.o fWAR
After posting ERAs below 2.00 in three of his past four seasons (the fourth was at just 2.23 ERA), the 2017 projections seem to point to a significant Melancon regression. He still projects to be good at inducing ground balls, but I can understand some hesitation in committing big money to a reliever without a big strikeout rate.
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
We took a look at some of the free agent rankings and predictions earlier this month, and most publications seem to agree that Melancon will cost something close to four years and $50 million.
MLB Trade rumors is predicting Melancon heads to the Giants (where he’s been connected the most so far this offseason) for four years and $52 million, and FanGraphs thinks he’ll cost even more at four years and $60 million.
But at ESPN Insider, however, Keith Law doesn’t believe in Melancon’s ability to continue the producing at the level he has been, ranks him as just the 23rd best free agent on the market, and doesn’t think anyone should give him more than just a one year deal. Wow.
Much of that uncertainty comes not only from the way Melancon gets results, but also from his past history of injuries.
Melancon’s injury history goes back a long way, but has looked slightly better over the past few years.
Back in 2006, Melancon missed some during his final college season with a strained elbow ligament in his throwing arm – an injury that ultimately led to Tommy John surgery and an entirely missed 2007 season. Considering the fact that our biggest indicator for future elbow/arm troubles is past elbow/arm troubles, Melancon comes with at least some risk.
That said, he has thrown over 70.0 innings in each of his last four seasons, so it might not be entirely fair to label him “an injury risk.”
One non-injury consideration: unlike Jansen, Melancon was not eligible for a qualifying offer, and thus would not cost a draft pick to sign.
Fit for Cubs
In our last taking stock piece (Kenley Jansen), we decided that the Cubs 1) have a need in the bullpen, particularly at the back end, 2) have the funds available to make such a commitment, and 3) are entering (what looks to be) a particularly important season due to the expected exodus of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey after 2017.
All that really means, though, is that making a high-risk (in terms of cost) addition to the back of the bullpen is at least somewhat warranted. However, is Melancon the guy?
In my opinion, it depends what else the Cubs are hoping to do. If they aren’t going to take on any other salary in free agency or trade, then I might be inclined to prefer the higher-priced Kenley Jansen over Melancon. However, if they want to save some money, while still shoring up the bullpen, Melancon might provide only slightly less production at nearly half the price. And for what it’s worth, the Cubs have clearly taken a liking to guys that induce weak contact, but that might be an angle they reserve for starters. Keep in mind: the Cubs boast an incredible infield defense, which works especially well for ground ball pitchers like Melancon.
Of course, this all depends on whether you think Melancon will be the pitcher he was over the past four seasons, or the one the projections suggest he might be for the next four seasons. With even the slightest drop in the K rate and uptick in the BB rate, Melancon becomes all the more reliant on the defense behind him and the quality of the contact he gives up.
We should also note, that at 32 years old, Melancon will be the oldest of the most often discussed available relievers (Chapman, Jansen, and Greg Holland, for example).
So while he may fit positionally and financially, there is more risk with Melancon than guys like Chapman or Jansen. Of course, the price will reflect that fact. We’ll see if the Cubs wind up connected in any serious rumors to Melancon.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.