It has become somewhat of a holiday tradition for the Red Sox, trading players viewed as spare parts to a budget-conscious team and getting an All-Star closer in return.
The well-intentioned idea failed miserably last season. Andrew Bailey was injured in spring training and pitched in just 19 games for the Sox while Josh Reddick became a standout for Oakland, belting 32 home runs and winning a Gold Glove.
Undeterred, the Sox are trying the same formula again. Just shy of a year since they traded for Bailey, the Sox completed a six-player trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday, obtaining closer Joel Hanrahan and infielder Brock Holt for righthanded reliever Mark Melancon and three prospects.
The similarities are remarkable. Bailey was 27 when he was traded and had twice been an All-Star. He had appeared in 157 games for Oakland and recorded 75 saves, His wife had family in Connecticut and he was glad to be coming to the Sox.
Hanrahan is 31 and a two-time All-Star. He has appeared in 238 games for the Pirates and recorded 82 saves. His wife has family in the Brockton area and he is glad to be coming to the Red Sox.
Hanrahan averaged 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings for Pittsburgh, Bailey 9.0 for Oakland. Hanrahan is entering his third year of arbitration eligibility, Bailey his second.
Now they’re together. Manager John Farrell made a smart move, contacting both pitchers and letting them know that Hanrahan will close and Bailey will move into a set-up role. Drama is not on the agenda for spring training.
“It was a great conversation, obviously,” Hanrahan said. “[Farrell] told me they’re excited for me, to have me there. They look forward to having me at the end of the bullpen here, closing for them.
“I’m just excited for that opportunity. I wasn’t sure what the role was going to be because there’s obviously guys that have closed before and had great success closing as well.”
Farrell said the Sox weren’t necessarily looking for a closer when the offseason started. But they couldn’t pass on the idea of strengthening their bullpen.
“This makes us a better team,” Farrell said. “Joel will come in and join a strong group. This is an All-Star closer, a pitcher with a high conversion rate for saves.”
Hanrahan looks the part of a closer at 6 feet 4 inches and 250 pounds with a bushy goatee. He has the stuff, too. Hanrahan averaged 95.8 miles per hour with his fastball last season, a slight drop from 2011. He also has what scouts describe as a “wipeout” slider, a pitch that dives out of the strike zone and produces plenty of bad swings.
Hanrahan walked 36 over 59.2 innings last season and allowed eight home runs, which led to a 2.72 ERA. Hanrahan had a poor September, allowing five earned runs over 9 innings and walking 10 as the Pirates fell out of contention.
“I had some issues with my legs last year,” Hanrahan said. “I hurt my hamstring early on in the year and had a sore ankle for a while that went under the wraps. I was wearing a tight ankle brace for a couple of weeks that kind of restricted my mechanics. I don’t think that walks are going to be a concern.”
With general manager Ben Cherington traveling, assistant GM Brian O’Halloran spoke about the deal. The Sox, he said, are convinced Hanrahan’s control issues can be cured.
“We looked at that very closely, we think that there are some reasons that we saw the uptick in walks,” O’Halloran said. “We’re going to talk to Joel and [Farrell] has already started that process. It’s not something that we’re concerned about long term. We believe that we’re going to get the guy that has been a great closer for two years.”
Farrell felt that Hanrahan used his third pitch, a cutter, too often. He also lacked precision in non-save situations — walking 16 in 22 innings.
“There’s more to command when you add a different pitch,” Farrell said. “It’s important for any pitcher to rely on their strengths.”
Bailey allowed 12 earned runs on 21 hits and 8 walks in 15.1 innings last season and blew three saves in nine chances. He did not respond to requests for comment on his new role. But Farrell said Bailey understood why the Sox made the trade.
“He was professional. He’s confident in himself and confident he’ll be able to pitch to the level he did in 2011 and is very much a team guy,” Farrell said. “He feels like he’ll regain that form needed for us to get better and deeper.”
Bailey’s biggest issue is staying on the field. Injuries have limited him to 108 games the last three years.
The Red Sox potentially have a strong, versatile bullpen, having added Hanrahan and righthander Koji Uehara to a group that included Bailey, Junichi Tazawa, Alfredo Aceves, Craig Breslow, Franklin Morales, and Andrew Miller. The Sox also hope Daniel Bard can rebound after a disastrous 2012 season.
“We have created depth that will allow us to rest the closer when needed,” Farrell said. “If they pitch up to their capability, it’s strong group.”
The Red Sox took notice of Hanrahan during an interleague series in Pittsburgh in 2011. In two saves against the Sox, Hanrahan threw 25 of his 35 pitches for strikes before sellout crowds.
His four-pitch strikeout of Adrian Gonzalez with a runner on second base to preserve a 6-4 victory on June 25 was a career highlight for Hanrahan.
“When people look back at me as a Pirate, that’s one that stands out the most to them. It was a fun weekend,” he said.
Said O’Halloran: “It definitely made an impression on me. I hadn’t seen very much of him. I’d seen him just a little bit here and there prior to that, and that was pretty impressive. If you go back and look at the video of that, it was not fun to be in the batter’s box against Joel Hanrahan, I’m sure, for our hitters. We’re excited to have him on our side.”
Hanrahan has never pitched in Fenway Park or even visited the ballpark.
“It’s change of pace from the NL Central but I think it’s going to be great,” Hanrahan said.
Hanrahan will be a free agent after the 2013 season. He is eligible for arbitration and in line to land a one-year contract worth roughly $7 million.