Is Joel Hanrahan As Much Of An Upgrade As He Seems?

Nice beard. (via Keith Allison)

Nice beard. (via Keith Allison)

For weeks now, we’ve been hearing rumblings about the Dodgers potentially looking to alleviate their starting pitching glut by sending Chris Capuano to Pittsburgh for reliever Joel Hanrahan, who of course was a second-round pick of the Dodgers way back in 2000.

Though the rumors have never become anything more substantive, we’re hearing it pop up once again thanks to Danny Knobler of CBS, who tweeted┬áthat “people who have talked to the Pirates say they’re pushing to move Hanrahan. Dodgers are one possibility.”

Since it won’t go away, it’s worth discussing, but it’s kind of an odd idea in that the further you look into it, the more the logic seems to unravel. On the surface –and I’ll admit this was my initial reaction the first time I heard it in November — “Capuano for Hanrahan” seems like kind of a laughable deal for the Pirates. After all, Hanrahan has been an All-Star in each of his two seasons as Pittsburgh closer, and while it’s more than defensible to sell high on him for the Pirates, you’d think that merely getting a veteran back-end starter in his walk year isn’t exactly the type of return you’d expect.

But on the other hand, starting pitchers are almost always more valuable than relievers due to the disparity in innings pitched, and Capuano is coming off a good season, one in which he nearly hit 200 innings and managed a 3.95 FIP (2.1 fWAR). Hanrahan, meanwhile, may have collected 36 saves with a shiny 2.72 ERA, but enormous problems with the strike zone and homers left him with an ugly 4.45 FIP and a -0.4 fWAR.

Oh, and he’s projected to make $6.9 million headed into his final year of arbitration. So there’s that, and all of a sudden the starter making $6m seems like a more useful piece than the reliever making nearly $7m. (Not that I think a walk-year guy like Capuano is really what the Pirates need, but then again, we shouldn’t be talking about this as though it’s a done deal; it’s mere speculation, and while the Dodgers do have interest, it may not be for Capuano, or it may not be for only Capuano — don’t forget, something has to be done with Scott Van Slyke over the next few days before his DFA period expires.)

Then again, the Dodgers need to trade a starter, and they could use another reliever, so even if the trade doesn’t necessarily seem even in a vacuum, it might if you consider the needs of the team. I wouldn’t want Hanrahan as my closer, but if you’re making him a setup guy as part of a hard-throwing trio along with Kenley Jansen & Ronald Belisario in front of Brandon League, well, that sounds pretty fun.

The main problem I’m having with this is that I have no idea how to explain what happened to Hanrahan last year; his stat line almost defies description. He was truly excellent in 2011, putting up a 1.83 ERA / 2.18 FIP and allowing just a single homer in 68.2 innings pitched. In some ways, he was even better in 2012, increasing his K/9 rate from 8.00 to 10.11, and seeing his BABIP drop from .282 to .225. He was missing more bats, and the balls that did get put into play largely weren’t dropping for hits. You’d think that’d lead to wonderful results, but his control fell apart, increasing from 2.10 per 9 in 2011 to an atrocious 5.43, and that wasn’t the worst of it. Part of the reason his BABIP dropped is because of the “balls in play” part, and when you’re suddenly giving up a ton of dingers — 1.21 per 9, in fact — the only people who are in play for that ball are those in the bleacher. It’s a simple equation; if you walk more and allow more homers, it’s not usually a formula for success, especially when your velocity is headed downward.

So there’s real concerns about Hanrahan, though you can de-emphasize them somewhat if he’s lined up to be your fourth-best reliever rather than your closer. That’s probably about what he’d be, because the current bullpen looks pretty solid; assuming a standard seven-man group, right now you’re looking at…

R Brandon League
R Kenley Jansen
R Ronald Belisario
L Scott Elbert
L Paco Rodriguez or long-rumored veteran import
R Matt Guerrier
- Rotation refugee (Ted Lilly?)

That’s assuming that both Capuano & Harang get dealt, and it’s also without including Shawn Tolleson or Javy Guerra, each of whom would have a pretty strong case to make to be on the roster but who might be handicapped by the fact they still have options. Really, the only obvious weak link there is Guerrier, and he’s not going to be the one who would get bounced if Hanrahan arrived, so the marginal upgrade might not be as much as you’d think.

As always, the question would be with the money; if it was really Capuano for Hanrahan straight up (which it probably wouldn’t be), the money would essentially be a wash. Of course, the notoriously cheap Pirates wouldn’t be looking to rid themselves of Hanrahan if they weren’t going to make out somewhat financially, so you could expect the Dodgers to be asked to pay some of Capuano’s salary. What if acquiring Hanrahan really means the roster spot costs $9m? Or $10m? Or more? Or more and including Van Slyke or a prospect?

It sounds absurd, but then again we also know that money doesn’t mean a thing to this team right now, so maybe it wouldn’t matter. Either way, while this deal has been in the air for a while, it’s still not close to being done, so we may never need to discuss it again. If it does happen, it might not be as much of a steal for the Dodgers as it initially appears.