The Braves Build Bullpen Depth, Adding Mark Melancon

The Atlanta Braves continued their deadline bullpen upgrades by acquiring relief pitcher Mark Melancon from the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Tristan Beck and Dan Winkler.

Coming into today, the ZiPS rest-of-season projections for the Braves, when combined with the FanGraphs depth charts, had the Braves with the No. 19 bullpen in baseball, ahead of only the Phillies, Nationals, and Angels among the plausible contenders. ZiPS is also the more optimistic of the two systems; when you combine ZiPS and Steamer on the FanGraphs Depth Charts, the Braves drop to 22nd.

There’s a misconception that Atlanta’s relief woes are because of Luke Jackson, the team’s closer for most of the season. It’s true that Jackson has only saved 17-of-24 games for the Braves, but save percentage is actually a rather poor predictor of future save percentage, especially when other metrics exist (ERA, FIP, batter OPS, pretty much anything else). Melancon and Jackson are in roughly the same tier performance-wise, along with Shane Greene; the reason the trade improves the team is because it improves the depth of the bullpen, which was a significantly larger problem than the closer himself.

San Francisco trading Melancon (and Ray Black, Sam Dyson, and Drew Pomeranz) does not represent the Giants throwing in the towel on the 2019 season. Prior to these trades, the ZiPS/Steamer combined projections had San Francisco with eight relief pitchers projected to have a FIP below four over the rest of the season. The Giants still retain five of them (Pomeranz was not on the list), more than enough pitching to cover high-leverage relief innings. The team has an improving farm system, but that’s largely due to the first-tier talent at the top of their prospect list: Joey Bart, Marco Luciano, Heliot Ramos, and Hunter Bishop. Much like the Braves’ bullpen prior to today, what the Giants’ system still lacks is depth.

Tristan Beck helps remedy this shortfall. Valued as a 40 on THE BOARD, Beck’s an upside play as a recent draftee still in the low minors. He has the prototypical power repertoire, the mid-90s fastball and sharp 12-6ish curve being most prominent, but does have an injury history that includes missing the entire 2017 season with back problems.

Beck has filled out significantly since being originally drafted by the Brewers in the 34th round in 2015. It’s still unknown whether he can stick as a starter long-term, but his fascinating upside is something the Giants need. The rotation is a serious weakness for the Giants and lacking any pitching prospects that match up to the top-line talent listed above, Beck’s a fair addition to the organization and one who I hope the Giants leave as a starter until he conclusively demonstrates that he can’t cut it.

Dan Winkler was an unexpected bright spot for the Braves bullpen in 2019, with a 3.43 ERA/2.76 FIP in 69 relief appearances. He’s struggled with his control in 2019, walking 29 batters in 38 1/3 innings between Atlanta and Gwinnett, enough that the ZiPS projection for Winkler’s FIP, when minor league performance is included, has jumped to 4.12 from his preseason 3.09. Winkler’s a flyer at this point and still possesses a fun cutter, and just to be biased for a minute, he’s a pitcher I’d really like to see have a long run in a major league bullpen. A Rockies prospect way back, Winkler’s career was first waylaid by Tommy John surgery when his UCL snapped during the fourth inning of a no-hitter. After coming back from surgery and heading to the Braves in the Rule 5 draft, Winkler fractured his elbow mid-pitch while facing just the 16th batter of his comeback. Another surgery and another lost year-and-a-half later, Winkler reconfigured his windup to take pressure off his elbow, and had his first full, healthy season in a long time. Next to what he’s already faced, I’m hoping trimming the walks is small potatoes.

You might be wondering why the Giants didn’t get more for Melancon. Despite a subset of baseball fans who, after Melancon’s initial struggles, decided that his contract was a bomb on the level of Mark Davis-in-Kansas City, he’s been solidly above-average for the Giants, with a 3.33 FIP over his stint in the Bay Area. That’s not the same elite performance he demonstrated in Pittsburgh, but closers who aren’t Mariano Rivera tend to have significant downside risk. The answer to the question of why the Giants couldn’t bring back more in return isn’t Melancon’s performance, but his contract. He’s owed roughly $21 million for the last one-and-a-third seasons of his deal and current reports have the Braves picking up every last red cent.

This financial arrangement works for both teams. Atlanta did not spend aggressively last winter, and with tremendous long-term payroll certainty thanks to decade-long contracts to Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies that don’t pay them like the stars they are (especially the latter), the Braves are in a position where they should be offering more money in return for keeping more prospects. This is important for the Giants, who have been determined to stay under the luxury tax threshold. We can argue all day and all night about whether this obsession with the threshold is wise given the team’s position, but it is what it is.

The Braves being willing to pick up Melancon’s contract gives the Giants more flexibility, with the money being cleared from the payroll needing to be put to better use than the bullpen. Losing Melancon drops the team’s guaranteed salaries from about $124 million to about $110 million; that extra room will go a long way to bringing back Madison Bumgarner and making other offseason additions, should ownership decide to do so. And ownership likely will; even if it’s logical to start rebuilding, it’s hard to object to the laudable goal of trying to win baseball games, which is kind of the whole point.

The Braves improve their depth, and the Giants get a couple of arms and room to spend in the winter without ending their slim 2019 playoff-path. Thumbs-up for both teams on this less-than-earth-shattering trade.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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4 years ago

So the Braves took on an underwater contract and gave the Giants prospects for the privilege? Melancon isn’t bad by any means, it’s just that this is a lot of money for a guy who is just okay.