Rumors that the Pirates will trade closer Joel Hanrahan have grown louder in the past month. Unfortunately, the Bucs aren't likely to get much for him. Here are five reasons why.
1. His contract status. Hanrahan is set to make about $7 million in arbitration, his last before he becomes a free agent. One year and $7 million isn't necessarily prohibitive, but it does make Hanrahan a less attractive trade piece than he would be if he made less money, or had more time remaining before free agency. Those conditions existed at the 2011 and 2012 trade deadlines, but the Pirates were in contention then, so it would have been trickier to trade him.
2. Hanrahan didn't pitch that well in 2012. Hanrahan's numbers were, superficially, very good, with a 2.72 ERA and 36 saves in 40 chances. Dig a bit deeper, though, and his 2012 season was troublesome. His velocity came and went, and his average fastball was down to 95.9 MPH from 97.1 MPH in 2011. 95.9 MPH is still a heck of a fastball, but without control, it's not enough on its own. Hanrahan walked an ugly 5.43 batters per nine innings in 2012, compared to 2.10 in 2011. He also allowed more home runs, partly due to dumb luck but also partly because he didn't do as good a job placing the ball down in the zone, and he allowed many more fly balls as a result. He still has enough strikeout ability to get the job done, but if a team is going to give up $7 million and a good player or prospect, "getting the job done" doesn't really, uh, get the job done.
3. Reliever performance is highly variable. Relievers, as a group, are in perpetual danger of falling apart. Let's look at the saves leaders from 2010. It's practically a where-are-they-now list. Brian Wilson? Heath Bell? Joakim Soria? Francisco Cordero? Ugh. So when a team looks at Hanrahan, who, again, walked 5.43 batters per nine innings last season, it can't get too excited about his future performance.
4. Hanrahan's conditioning. There have been rumblings this offseason about what kind of shape Hanrahan is in. Hanrahan himself is going with the Jose Diaz defense, which is that being a big guy helps him throw hard. That might be true. But I can hardly fault someone for worrying about Hanrahan's health, particularly when he's 31 and his 2012 season was a bit of a down year.
5. Trading closers works better at the trade deadline than in the offseason. Summer is when contenders have bullpens fall apart, and their GMs feel pressure to do something now. In the offseason, it's easy enough to imagine that your 36-year-old closer will hold up and your top lefty's elbow soreness will be gone in time for Spring Training and your electric Class AAA arm is ready to step into a late-inning role. Then April and May happen. Your closer's breaking ball doesn't break anymore, your lefty is simply broken, it turns out your minor-leaguer has no idea where his pitches are going, and the local press is screaming for your head. Stop! Hammer Time. The Tigers were rumored to be one destination for Hanrahan, but GM Dave Dombrowski recently said he's "content" with his bullpen. Even if that's true, it might not be six months from now.
There is, of course, a legitimate chance that if the Pirates keep Hanrahan, he may end up being one of the relievers who breaks. If that happens, they'll get nothing for him. Ultimately, though, they're going to be hard-pressed to get a whole lot if they deal him in the next few weeks, even if they do free up some money to spend on something else, probably a starting pitcher. It might make sense to hold onto Hanrahan until after the season starts, although the Pirates might consider that too financially risky. If a Hanrahan trade does happen soon, Pirates fans might not end up being thrilled with the result.