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Astros, Red Sox Swap Melancon For Weiland & Lowrie

The Astros are a team in need of rebuild and the Red Sox are a team in need of a quality reliever, so the two sides got together for a three-player trade on Wednesday. Right-handed reliever Mark Melancon is heading to Boston in exchange for righty Kyle Weiland and infielder Jed Lowrie.

The Red Sox need pitching, all forms of it, but especially late-inning arms with Jonathan Papelbon off to the Phillies and Daniel Bard apparently getting a shot at the rotation next year. Melancon — who the Astros acquired from the Yankees for Lance Berkman at the 2010 trade deadline — has 112 pretty good big league innings to his credit (3.47 FIP), with most of them (74.1 IP) coming in 2011. He uses a pair of low-90’s fastballs (four-seamer and cutter) and a hard, power curveball to generate both ground balls (55.5% career) and whiffs (9.6 SwStr% and 20.7 K%). Melancon got his walk rate under control late in the season and is under team control for another five years, the first two as a minimum salary (or close to it) player and the final three as an arbitration-eligible player.

Melancon is young but he’s no spring chicken (turns 27 in March), and his biggest flaw is his platoon split. It’s not the biggest sample in the world, but his fielder independent performance against righties (23.0 K% and 9.0 BB%) is far superior to his numbers against lefties (17.6 K% and 13.1 BB%). He got his Tommy John surgery out of the way in 2007, so the Sox got a nice, cheap power arm for their surprisingly thin bullpen. Melancon won’t replace Papelbon’s or even Bard’s relief dominance, but he can step in as the closer (20-for-25 in save chances for Houston in 2011) or setup man with as good a chance of succeeding as anyone.

For the Astros, the deal basically hinges on the 27-year-old Lowrie. Decent middle infielders are getting two guaranteed years and upwards of $14 million on the free agent market, but Houston just acquired three years of a guy with 9.7 BB% and .156 ISO in his 920 big league plate appearances. The switch-hitting Lowrie crushes left-handers (career .395 wOBA) but has had his struggles against righties (.282 wOBA), but his biggest problem is just staying on the field. He hasn’t managed 400 PA in a single season since 2008, with shoulder and wrist problems sandwiched around a bout with mono in recent years. I’m not sure he’ll ever replicate the 1.9 WAR pace he put up in a third of a season in 2010, but if he ever manages to get those elusive 400 PA, Lowrie figures to hit enough to be a two-win shortstop, if not more. His health is a significant IF at this point, though.

Weiland isn’t a throw-in but he’s not really the key piece for the Astros either. The 25-year-old righty got his brains beat in during his big league debut down the stretch this year (6.55 FIP in 24.2 IP), but has had solid numbers at even rung of the minor league ladder. WEEI.com’s Alex Speier says Houston plans to use him as a starter next season, which is the best use of his four-pitch mix: low-90’s four-seamer, mid-80’s slider and changeup, plus a high-70’s curveball. He’ll also mix in the rare cutter and two-seamer. Weiland will give the team a lot of flexibility though; he still has all six years of contractual control remaining and some minor league options left to burn through.

The instant reaction is that the Astros sold high on Melancon while buying low on Lowrie, but I try not to think about trades like that. The Sox had a surplus at short with Lowrie and Marco Scutaro while the Astros had little need for a good closer, so they got together and plugged some roster holes. A healthy Lowrie will make this look like a steal for Houston three years down the road, but we haven’t seen a healthy Lowrie all too often. It’s entirely possible that Weiland will outproduce Melancon next season by himself, but contenders often have to overpay a bit to deal with their pressing needs. Melancon gives them a little more piece of mind in the late innings, and the Astros are just gambling on upside here. We all want to anoint winners and losers for every trade, but I think both teams did well here, just for very different reasons.