The only proven major league piece that the Pirates received in the Hanny/Holt deal was RHP Mark Melancon, 27, a back-end reliever who was a closer for the Astros and a set-up man (briefly) in Boston.
He was born in Wheat Ridge, Colorado and attended Golden High School, where MM was a multi-talented athlete. He lettered four years in baseball and basketball and three times in football. He was pretty good in all of them, as Melancon was named to the All-State Team twice in baseball and football and once in basketball.
Melancon played on a Golden Demons team that won the Colorado 4A State Championship in baseball, and still had the focus to graduate as a member of the National Honors Society. He was ranked the #3 high school prospect in the state, and the Dodgers took a thirtieth round flier on him in 2003, adding his name to a class that included Chad Billingsley, Matt Kemp, Russ Martin and Andy LaRoche. But Melancon had made a verbal commitment to Arizona, and he kept it.
The hard-throwing righty set a single-season freshman record in 2004 by making 29 appearances, and followed that by going 2-0 with two saves in five postseason outings as Arizona returned to the CWS for the first time since 1986. He was also selected to the US National Team and picked up five saves for the Red, White and Blue.
After that strong summer performance, Melancon claimed Arizona’s closer’s job as a sophomore in 2005. He appeared in 34 games, and set a Wildcat single-season record with 11 saves. In 2006 he set the school’s career saves record at 18, and his 66-1/3 innings pitched was more than anyone on the staff beside the team’s top tandem of starters. In hindsight, all those frames may not have been such a good thing, and the workload was about to catch up to his arm.
During the offseason, Melancon was included among the 40 players named to the watch list for the Roger Clemens Award honoring the top NCAA Division I college baseball pitcher. But MM didn't get to vie for it, as he was shut down for his junior campaign with a strained elbow ligament. He didn’t require surgery - yet.
Baseball America ranked him as the 35th best draft prospect overall in 2006, even without tossing a pitch. But his elbow injury scared off a lot of clubs; they suspected future TJ surgery was in the offing (they were right). He dropped to the ninth round, when the Yanks, who had checked out his arm apparently to their satisfaction, took a chance on him with the 284th overall pick. They inked him to a $600K bonus, the slot value for a mid-second rounder. Melancon joined Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, George Kontos and even Daniel McCutchen as draftmates.
After signing his deal, Melancon was assigned late in the year to the short season Staten Island Yankees of the NYPL in 2006. He whiffed eight in 7-1/3 IP, then picked up the save in both of SI’s wins in the league championship series, including the title clincher.
The Yankees sent Melancon to briefly lived Hawaii Winter Baseball league after the season to pick up a few more innings, but he had to be shut down after complaining of elbow soreness. That led to Tommy John surgery in November, costing him the 2007 season.
But he recovered OK, and by fall of 2007, he was doing some Instructional League rehab. Despite missing the year, BA rated him the Yankees’ 11th best prospect after the season, due in part to his good showing in instructional league.
The Yankees invited Melancon to camp in 2008. That's the year he fast-tracked his way through the Bronx Bomber organization, zipping from Class High A Tampa, AA Trenton and AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. His overall line was 8-1/2.27 in 41 outings covering 95 IP, with 89 K, a 0.958 WHIP and opponent BA of .202. For all that, MM didn't get a call to Yankee Stadium; the NY FO thought after his injury comeback that he had worked enough innings. He went into the 2009 season as the Yankees' #9 prospect, according to BA.
After starting 2009 at WBS, Melancon was called up to the majors for the first time on April 25th. He made his MLB bow the next day against the Boston Red Sox, pitching two scoreless innings. MM yo-yo'ed abck and forth between AAA and the show. He ended up 0-1/3.86, but his K rate and walk rate were the same at 5.5 per nine, so it was apparent that he wasn't ready for the bright lights yet.
He again began at WBS in 2010, and made just a pair of appearances for the NYY, getting pretty well lit up, giving up four runs on seven hits in four frames. MM continued to be strong for WBS, going 6-1-6/3.67 with 58 K in 56-1/3 innings, though control continued to be a problem with five walks per nine.
The Yankees were pretty deep in minor league arms and cash while Houston wasn't, and Melancon was traded along with Jimmy Paredes to the Astros for Lance Berkman right at the July 31st deadline.
Melancon got a quick three-game AAA evaluation at Round Rock before joining Houston. He worked 17-1/3 frames, striking out 19, with a late season line of 2-0/3.12, and the walks came down a little, though still at four per game.
He went from Astro set-up man to closer after Brandon Lyon fell to a labrum injury. MM handled the job fairly well, going 8-4/2.78 ERA, with 8.0 K/9 in 74-1/3 innings in 2011, saving 20 games in 25 opportunities. His strikeout rate stayed fairly strong at eight per nine, and the walks dropped to a much more manageable three per nine.
On December 14th, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox for infielder Jed Lowrie and starter Kyle Weiland. The Astros traded him to Boston after the season for Jed Lowrie on December 14th, when he was at high value. That value would drop off the cliff quickly in Beantown.
Melancon was slotted in as the Bosox set-up man, but that plan didn't last but four games before he was bombed back to AAA Pawtucket with an ERA of 49.50 on April 18th. He served up five gopher balls while facing a mere 18 batters after giving up just five longballs total in all of 2011. After a couple of months of getting himself together and dominating the International League (11 saves, 0.83 ERA, 11.2 K per nine in 21 outings), Melancon was recalled to Boston on June 10th after an elbow injury to Rich Hill.
He tossed to a 4.19 ERA after that, but that couldn't save his season-ending slash of 0-2-1/6.20. Except for an ugly eight homers in 45 IP, his other peripherals were OK - 8.2 K against 2.4 walks per nine, a 1.267 WHIP and 50% ground ball rate. Nevertheless, Boston said "bah humbug" to him during the holidays, and so now he's in Pittsburgh as part of the Hanny Christmas sale.
There are a couple of reasons to expect a bounce back from Melancon. His fly ball rate (26.5% last season) wasn't appreciably higher, so the home run surge against him looks like an outlier. His career numbers - 53.8% groundball rate, 8.5 K, 2.7 BB - look good. Melancon's control seems to have improved every season. He's returning to the NL Central, certainly a more pitcher friendly division than the AL East and one he's had success in.
And he's controllable. The right-hander won't be arbitration eligible until after the
2013 season and won't enter free agency until after the 2016 campaign (though he is out of options).
He doesn't have the stuff or the ceiling that Hanny has, and he does show same side tendencies. Righties put up a career .226/.293/.336 line against Melancon while lefties hit .253/.342/.402
against him. That's an 86 v 119 OPS. It's a noticeable split, and one that may come into play in lefty-friendly PNC Park.
MM should fit in with guys like Jason Grilli and Jared Hughes; he's in competitive and combative mode from the second the bullpen gate swings open. He's a power pitcher - his four seamer can touch 97, and both his regular and cut fastball clock in at 93. Melancon has a plus curve to go with it. The Bucs may want to work on his change - until he's comfortable using it, lefties will likely keep that favorable split against him.
With Melancon now aboard, it looks he's the set up man for Jason Grilli and the Bucs have their Plan A in place for the back end of the pen. Let's hope he breaks from the gate a little faster this coming season than he did for the Red Sox in 2012, as his career stat slash suggests he should.