Joel Hanrahan Trade Strengthens Red Sox’ Bullpen, But True Impact of Deal Relies on a Few Factors

Joel HanrahanRed Sox fans received a lot of hip joke material on Wednesday, as the club announced that it has acquired closer Joel Hanrahan and infielder Brock Holt from the Pirates in exchange for Mark Melancon, Stolmy Pimental, Jerry Sands and Ivan De Jesus.

The sooner we get all of the Steve Holt Arrested Development gags and Tommy Hanrahan Slap Shot puns out of the way, though, the sooner we’ll realize that the Red Sox might have just bolstered their bullpen in a big way.

Hanrahan’s talent has become apparent in recent years. The 31-year-old has ridden a hard, biting slider and a fastball in the mid-t0-high 90s to back-to-back All-Star selections after experiencing a fair share of struggles early on in his career with the Nationals. Hanrahan went 5-2 with a 2.72 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP while saving 36 games last season for the surprising Pirates, and he was even more impressive the season prior, recording 40 saves, a 1.83 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in 68 2/3 innings for the Bucs.

If Hanrahan performs at a level similar to that, the Red Sox will have a very formidable back end of the bullpen in 2013, especially with the addition of Koji Uehara earlier this offseason.

The trade isn’t without risk, though. The big job for John Farrell now is to figure out how to deploy his relievers, as Andrew Bailey was previously tabbed as the team’s closer and Junichi Tazawa was also impressive down the stretch in 2012. Plus, you toss in Daniel Bard‘s uncertainty, Alfredo Aceves‘ ever-changing role on the staff and Franklin Morales‘ back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen last season, and Farrell has his hands full.

That being said, as of right now, it’s a good problem to have to deal with, even if it seems that major league bullpens are often the most difficult units to predict on a year-to-year basis. The big risk instead lies in what exactly the Red Sox were dealing away in Melancon, and what impact bringing in Hanrahan will have on Bailey’s psyche.

No one is going to sit here and call the Melancon era a success, as he struggled mightily out of the gate last season before getting shipped to Pawtucket. However, his career track record indicates he could wind up bouncing back in 2013. And while that’s a big if, a bounce-back year for Melancon would make it tough to justify giving up prospects — albeit second-rate prospects — and muddying the club’s closer waters in exchange for what could ultimately be a more minimal upgrade than originally anticipated.

The biggest takeaways from the Hanrahan deal are that there still might be some concerns about Bailey — who finished last season with an ERA north of 7.00 after sitting out until Aug. 14 with a thumb injury — and there was obviously some skepticism about whether Melancon was capable of being the reliable, late-inning, setup guy the Red Sox thought they were acquiring from the Astros last offseason.

In an ideal world for the Red Sox, Bailey will welcome the challenge of serving as the team’s primary setup man with open arms, and be sandwiched by Uehara in the seventh and Hanrahan in the ninth. The worst case scenario would be Hanrahan experiencing a not-so-smooth transition to the American League brand of ball and a closer-by-committee debacle breaking out as Melancon thrives in the Steel City as Jason Grilli‘s setup man.

Considering where the Boston bullpen ranked last season — 19th in ERA (3.88), 18th in WHIP (1.29) and 18th in batting average against (.240) — switching things up probably isn’t a bad thing. The risk/reward factor is quite obvious in this case, though, and that’s without yet factoring in the impact that Pimental, Sands or De Jesus might have in Pittsburgh.

Pimental, who was the 20th-ranked prospect in the Boston system, according to SoxProspects.com, probably has the most potential of the bunch, although none of the three come with “top prospect” hype. So again, the biggest factor in determining how successful this trade ultimately is for the Red Sox will be how much of an upgrade Hanrahan provides over Melancon and whether Bailey experiences any adverse effects from bringing in a new closer.

Now, the Red Sox must figure out how exactly they’re going to go about getting to their revamped bullpen, as another season like last year’s for the starting rotation won’t do the trick.

Click here to see how Hanrahan and Brock responded to news of the trade >>

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