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Trade Retrospective: The Red Sox send Jed Lowrie to the Astros for Mark Melancon

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Yet another deal where overpaying for a reliever did not work out.

Boston Red Sox v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

For the second straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

A few weeks ago in this series, I covered the Red Sox’s acquisition of Andrew Bailey and how it worked out poorly for them. By sending Jed Lowrie to Houston for Mark Melancon, they made the same mistake twice in one offseason. The Red Sox even threw in Kyle Weiland, a pitcher who profiled as a back-end starter.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will still be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation. Process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties. All WAR values are from Baseball Reference unless otherwise specified.

The Deal

I remember when Jed Lowrie debuted for the Red Sox. I was not following prospects in 2008, but I do remember that he looked a lot better than Julio Lugo. Though I am not a Red Sox fan, I do watch the team plenty living in Boston and being married to a Red Sox fan. I was tired of watching the awful Lugo, and Lowrie showed promise. As somebody who loves to watch young players succeed, I was excited.

Lowrie could hit, no question, but he was severely lacking in a skill called health. During his four seasons with the Red Sox, he played only 256 games. He missed time with a shoulder injury, mono, and a fractured wrist. When he was playing he was a below average hitter, hitting .252/.324/.408 over his first four seasons. He is also what I call a “fake” switch-hitter, meaning that his platoon splits are large enough that it negates any value in hitting from both sides of the plate. His split was roughly 100 points of wOBA in favor of hitting lefties (i.e. hitting right-handed).

I could not find any prospects lists that had Kyle Weiland in the top 100, but that doesn’t mean he was projected to be bad. He had the ceiling of a No. 4 starter and the floor of a good reliever. He debuted in 2011 and pitched only 24 23 innings, during which he had a horrendous 8.03 RA9 and 11 percent strikeout rate, barely striking out more hitters than he walked. Of course, it was a microscopic sample size of innings.

This trade retrospective series covered two trades that the Astros made at the 2011 trade deadline, one good and one not so good. Then-GM Ed Wade had been fired, and the Astros turned over the reins to Jeff Luhnow. This was his first trade, and he nailed it, returning good value for a reliever that a tanking team does not need.

The 2011 season is when Mark Melancon first developed his cutter, a pitch that has severed him very well ever since. He threw it less than a quarter of the time in 2011, as opposed to over 60 percent the past three seasons. His final season in Houston, he had a 3.39 RA9 and 56.7 percent groundball rate, which was especially helpful in a hitter-friendly stadium.

Melancon looked perfectly suited for Fenway Park, but this was a high price to pay for a reliever, especially one with unremarkable velocity and mediocre strikeout rates. Yes, given Lowrie’s injury history he did not have a ton of value, but with his upside he was worth more than a good reliever, even if he did have five years of control left.

Mike Aviles could be counted on to play every day at shortstop, but the Red Sox would be lucky if he was worth more than 1 WAR. José Iglesias had an 80 glove, but his bat was not ready for the majors yet. Xander Bogaerts would not be ready until late 2013. Lowrie’s upside would be needed to allow the Sox to compete in what would be a very competitive AL East in 2012. Perhaps the Red Sox knew things about Lowrie that the public did not that would make this trade more sensible. That would be the only way I could make sense of this trade.

So to review, the Red Sox were adding to the risks that they were already taking by acquiring Andrew Bailey, a pitcher with a Lowrie-like track record of health, and moving Daniel Bard to the rotation, a role he seemed ill-suited for with his low arm slot. A little risk is a good thing. The Red Sox, unfortunately, took it to a whole other level, and it blew up in their faces.

The Results

The trade was a disaster for the Red Sox in a 2012 season where they appeared to be cursed. In Melancon’s first four appearances in Boston, he faced 18 batters and gave up 11 R and 5 HR. He got demoted to Triple A, which might have seemed fine but was an absurd decision. Demoting a player because of a sample size that is practically nothing is poor decision-making.

Melancon got called back up in June and was solid for the rest of the season, though still a far cry from his 2011. He posted a 4.19 RA9 but had some bad luck with a low strand rate. He did do a good job of not walking batters, and he kept the ball in the park. In fact those are two things he would improve upon even further in subsequent years.

You would think that GM Ben Cherington learned his lesson about overpaying for relievers after the 2012 season. On top of what happened with Melancon, Andrew Bailey barely played that year due to injury. Still, Cherington felt that having a Proven Closer was so important that the following offseason, he traded Melancon to the Pirates for Joel Hanrahan.

The cost was actually relatively minor that time. Cherington sent Pittsburgh a few prospects who did not project to be much. It was an odd trade, though. Hanrahan had two years of control left versus four for Melancon. Furthermore, though he had a 2.72 RA9 in 2012, his DRA was a run higher. He had a .225 BABIP and a high strand rate, and he walked everybody. He projected to be a minor upgrade at best. It would have been better to just role the dice with Melancon again and keep the prospects.

The Red Sox were the last team that Hanrahan ever played for. He missed almost all of 2013 with Tommy John surgery — and had a 9.82 RA9 when he did pitch — and Boston cut him in the offseason. He signed a one-year deal with the Tigers but never ended up playing for them because he needed a second Tommy John surgery.

Ironically, Melancon went on to have a great three-and-a-half-year run in Pittsburgh. He had a 2.15 RA9 over 260 13 IP and was traded to the Nationals at last year’s deadline. At least the Red Sox got Brock Holt in the Melancon trade, who’s had a few decent years in Boston as an injury fill-in.

In 2012, Lowrie spent significant time on the DL with a thumb sprain and an ankle sprain. However, he was quite good when he played. He hit .244/.331/.438 and was worth 2.2 WAR in 97 games. Red Sox shortstops were worth barely more than that for the entire season.

The Astros traded Lowrie to Oakland in the following offseason for a package that included Chris Carter, who spent three so-so years in Houston before being non-tendered. He had the best season of his career in 2013, hitting .290/.344/.446, which was worth 3.5 fWAR. He even stayed healthy the whole season. The following season he regressed, and he missed time due to a broken finger.

Following the 2014 season, Lowrie was a free agent and decided to return to the Astros on a three-year, $23 milion deal. Once more, he missed a lot of time in 2015 due to injury. The Astros traded him back to the A’s, where he missed half of 2016 due to a toe injury. He is still on the A’s.

Weiland made three starts in 2012, giving up a total of 13 runs. He then got shut down for the season with a shoulder infection. He also missed all of 2013 due to injury. He tried making a comeback in 2014, but again he was fighting an infection in his right shoulder and abdomen. He announced his retirement in March 2015.

Red Sox Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Mark Melancon 5 -0.5 $0.52

You do not need to be a top-notch analyst to conclude that giving up talent for one year of sub-replacement level play is a bad result. This is another example to add to the pile of why a team should not overpay for relievers. Ironically, the Giants just gave the soon to be 32-year-old Melancon a four-year, $62-million deal.

Astros Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Jed Lowrie 3 2.2 $1.15
Includes only what the Astros got from the trade. Weiland is omitted because he barely played.

Even though the Astros were terrible in 2012, that’s still a good return for a reliever that they did not need anymore. Weiland’s results were very disappointing, but the cost was so low that it does not matter much.

The Astros were certainly hoping for more in their trade. However, the process behind it was sound. A rebuilding team should never hang on to a top reliever, especially when teams are willing to overpay for them. The Red Sox did not pay too dearly for their mistake. Lowrie would not have made a difference in 2012, and Bogaerts debuted late the following season when they won the World Series. Luck can always bail out a team from a bad trade.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.