Blue Jays Trade Target: Pirates Closer Joel Hanrahan


One by one this offseason, free-agent closer options have disappeared for the Blue Jays, as only Ryan Madson, Frank Francisco, and two other Franciscos — Cordero and Rodriguez — remain on the open market.

That’s just fine for Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos, who was apparently shocked last month about the dollars free agent closers were asking for and reiterated to reporters yesterday that he’d prefer to go the trade route when looking to acquire one.

While Andrew Bailey and Huston Street have dominated the rumor mill recently, one name that hasn’t been mentioned at all in trade talks is Pittsburgh Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan.

Hanrahan, 30, put together a very nice debut season as a full-time closer in 2011, and although he might be too pricey to acquire via trade, he’s definitely worth exploring.

Officially named the Pirates closer back in the spring on February 16, Hanrahan was acquired by the Pirates along with outfielder Lastings Milledge at the end of June in 2009 in the deal that sent reliever Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan to the Washington Nationals. Hanrahan had fallen out of favor in Washington that year after allowing 28 earned runs in 33 innings (7.71 ERA), but the Pirates noticed his strikeout rates and felt a change of scenery would help him. It most certainly did, as Hanrahan went on to allow just six earned runs on 23 hits in 31 innings for the Pirates in 2009, along with 37 strikeouts.

He really broke out for the Pirates during the 2010 season, though, his first full year with the team. He allowed 58 hits in 69.2 innings with a whopping 100 strikeouts, which marked a new career-high 12.9 K/9. He cut his walk rate while upping his ground ball rate, and his average fastball velocity increased by almost two miles per hour to a blistering 96. Plus, his FIP (2.62) was a full run lower than his ERA (3.62), so it appeared likely that the Iowa native would be just as effective in 2011, perhaps even more so.

That proved to be true, as Hanrahan was overpowering this past season. He pitched 68.2 innings, one less than in 2010, while allowing 56 hits, nearly the exact amount as he did the year before. The difference, though, is that he cut his earned runs in half, allowing just 14 all season (1.83 ERA), thanks largely in part to the drop in his home run rate, as he allowed just one home run all year.

Even though his strikeout rate dropped considerably, Hanrahan still managed to post a respectable 8.0 K/9. The decline from his historic mark the year before was expected, and could also be attributed to his ground ball rate that increased by over 10 percent to a career-high 52.4%. Using his slider 45% less of the time, Hanrahan depended on his fastball this past season and with good reason. His average velocity, yes average velocity on the pitch rose to 97 mph, and it marked the second consecutive season that he increased both his ground ball rate and fastball velocity.

Even though he can throw a changeup, Hanrahan stuck to a two-pitch mix almost exclusively in 2011 as well. His adjustments helped him record a 2.18 FIP this past season, which was eighth among all MLB pitchers that had thrown at least 40 innings and fourth in the National League.

Having seeing Hanrahan first-hand at PNC Park multiple throughout the season, it’s clear that he’d fit in just fine with the Blue Jays. It was also easy to notice that the Pirates’ bullpen would be able to absorb his loss just fine, with guys like Jason Grilli and Jose Veras capable of  shouldering the load.

Arbitration-eligible for the second time this winter, Hanrahan will obviously see a salary increase from the $1.4 million he earned in 2011. He’s under club control for the next two seasons — one less than Bailey — so while he might not command as high of a price as Oakland is rumored to be asking for for their closer, he would certainly be able to fetch a solid return for the Pirates given the crazy market for closers this season.

The Pirates, however, seem to have no intention of moving the right-hander, instead possibly entertaining the thought of offering him a rare multiyear deal, contrary to the list of Pirates sites that are in favor of the idea. Pirates blogs recognize that having a top closer in Hanrahan for two more years might not make the most sense while their top pitching prospects make their way up the minor league ladder and closer to The Show. Given the amount of teams prioritizing the closer role, the Jays included, dealing Hanrahan might be a key opportunity to fill an organizational weakness with one or two solid, impact prospects.

The question is, what prospect(s) would the Jays have to give up to acquire Hanrahan? That’s entirely unknown, but Tim Williams over at Pirates Prospects took a stab at it, concluding that he’d be worth “just shy of a top 26-50 hitter” and that Hanrahan’s value “definitely covers a top 50 pitching prospect, a top 51-75 hitter, or a top 76-100 hitter,” continuing on with “add in a grade B pitcher or a grade B hitter and Hanrahan could bring back two top prospects in a trade.”

I can’t see a team giving up that significant of a player (or players) for Hanrahan, let alone Anthopoulos paying for a player at the peak of his value after coming off the best season of his career, but it’s an intriguing thought nonetheless.  The Pirates would be able to command a solid return for their closer and, as we all know, the Jays are stocked well enough with prospects to get a deal done if they’d like to.

– JM

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