The closer position is something that the San Diego Padres haven’t had to worry about all season.
Free-agent acquisition Mark Melancon has a league-leading 27 saves and was voted to the All-Star game. He’s got a 2.04 ERA, and according to WAR, he’s been the eighth-most valuable Padre this season. Those numbers are a mirage, though, and if the Padres don’t address the closer role, it might cost them.
Melancon immediately impressed for the Padres, as he allowed just one hit in his first six appearances. He also allowed one run in his first 15 showings and picked up 12 saves in that same time frame. Since then, he’s been decent, recording a 3.13 ERA in his last 24 appearances.
His struggles have gotten worse, though, in the last month, putting up a 5.56 ERA in his last 12 outings on the mound. The most worrying fact for Melancon is the fact he’s got a 4.13 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). FIP uses the three true outcomes to estimate a pitcher’s expected ERA, eliminating the variance that batted ball luck and fielding can play in a pitcher’s ERA. This can be especially useful for relief pitchers as the limited innings can lead to extreme discrepancies between their FIP and ERA.
There’s not a single player in baseball who’s pitched more innings than Melancon and overperformed their FIP by that much. He might collapse down the stretch, losing games for the Padres in the second half. He might get good results all season and then blow a crucial save in the playoffs. Melancon might remain lucky all season and pitch his way out of all the jams he works his way into. The closer might win the World Series for the Padres. But the math says he won’t.
There are many great relief pitching options for the Padres, but the best one is arguably Pirates’ closer Richard Rodriguez.
The right-hander is 31, much younger than the 36-year-old Melancon. He won’t hit free agency until 2024 and recorded a 2.29 FIP in 36.1 innings of work this season. Rodriguez does have fewer saves and a higher ERA than Melancon, but he’s got a lower WHIP and FIP. Rodriguez allows fewer hits, home runs, and walks per nine innings, all while striking out more batters per nine innings than Melancon. For the Padres it is simply great to have a plan B just in case something happens to their current closer.
Rodriguez is just not considered a star despite having a FIP under three in three of the past four seasons. He’s been super durable, never being placed on the injured list in his major league career. There’s been plenty of interest from teams such as the Blue Jays and Phillies, so there may be a bidding war for his services. Unlike a player like Craig Kimbrel, who’s older and has less control, Rodriguez doesn’t really have a major drawback.
The Pirates continue their long-term rebuild, so they’ll be sellers at this year’s deadline. Pittsburgh needs prospects, and that is something that the Padres have plenty of. It won’t be cheap to land Rodriguez, but having a top, consistent closer makes the prospect cost worth it.
Melancon doesn’t really have any value as a trade piece due to his age, contract, and the fact he’s overperformed so far this season. The Padres could ride him as long as they need to, with Rodriguez ready to take over duties if needed. The point is to have several options as the team heads into the final stretch of the season.
It’d be a ridiculously bold decision for general manager A.J. Preller and manager Jayce Tingler to bench their All-Star closer. Especially if Melancon doesn’t have a run of blown saves in the next two weeks.
However, bold decisions win world championships.