It has become somewhat of a holiday tradition for the Red Sox, trading players viewed as spare parts to a budget-conscious team and getting an All-Star closer in return.
The well-intentioned idea failed miserably last season. Andrew Bailey was injured in spring training and pitched in just 19 games for the Sox while Josh Reddick became a standout for Oakland, belting 32 home runs and winning a Gold Glove.
Undeterred, the Sox are trying the same formula again. Just shy of a year since they traded for Bailey, the Sox completed a six-player trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates Wednesday, obtaining closer Joel Hanrahan and infielder Brock Holt for righthanded reliever Mark Melancon and three prospects.
Before the trade was announced, Sox manager John Farrell contacted Bailey and Hanrahan and informed them that Hanrahan would go into spring training as the closer. Bailey will be a set-up man, assuming he is not traded.
Drama is not on the agenda for spring training.
“It was a great conversation, obviously,” Hanrahan said. “[Farrell] told me they’re excited for me, to have me there. They look forward to having me at the end of the bullpen here, closing for them.
“I’m just excited for that opportunity. I wasn’t sure what the role was going to be because there’s obviously guys that have closed before and had great success closing as well.”
Farrell said the Sox weren’t necessarily looking for a closer when the offseason started. But they couldn’t pass on the idea of strengthening their bullpen.
“This makes us a better team,” Farrell said. “Joel will come in and join a strong group. This is an All-Star closer, a pitcher with a high conversion rate for saves.”
Hanrahan looks the part of a closer at 6 feet 4 inches and 250 pounds. He has the stuff, too. He averaged 95.8 miles per hour with his fastball last season, a slight drop from 2011. He also has what scouts describe as a “wipeout” slider, a pitch that dives out of the strike zone and produces plenty of bad swings.
Hanrahan had a dominant 2011, picking up 40 saves in 44 chances and posting a 1.83 ERA. He struck out 61 in 68⅔ innings and walked only 16.
His statistics shifted a bit last season. Hanrahan walked 36 over 59⅔ innings and allowed eight home runs, which led to a 2.72 ERA. He had a poor September, allowing five earned runs over nine innings and walking 10 as the Pirates fell out of contention.
“I had some issues with my legs last year,” Hanrahan said. “I hurt my hamstring early on in the year and had a sore ankle for a while that went under the wraps. I was wearing a tight ankle brace for a couple of weeks that kind of restricted my mechanics. I don’t think that walks are going to be a concern.”
With general manager Ben Cherington traveling, assistant GM Brian O’Halloran spoke about the deal. The Sox, he said, are convinced that Hanrahan’s control issues can be cured.
“We looked at that very closely,” said O’Halloran. “We think that there are some reasons that we saw the uptick in walks. We’re going to talk to Joel, and [Farrell] has already started that process. It’s not something that we’re concerned about long-term. We believe that we’re going to get the guy that has been a great closer for two years.”
Farrell felt that Hanrahan used his third pitch, a cutter, too often. He also lacked precision in non-save situations, walking 16 in 22 innings.
“There’s more to command when you add a different pitch,” Farrell said. “It’s important for any pitcher to rely on their strengths.”
Bailey allowed 12 earned runs on 21 hits and 8 walks in 15⅓ innings last season and blew three saves in nine chances. He did not respond to requests for comment on his new role. But Farrell said Bailey understood why the Sox made the trade.
“He was professional,” said Farrell. “He’s confident in himself and confident he’ll be able to pitch to the level he did in 2011 and is very much a team guy. He feels like he’ll regain that form needed for us to get better and deeper.”
The Red Sox potentially have a strong, versatile bullpen, having added Hanrahan and righthander Koji Uehara to a group that included Bailey, Junichi Tazawa, Alfredo Aceves, Craig Breslow, Franklin Morales, and Andrew Miller. The Sox also hope Daniel Bard can rebound after a disastrous 2012 season.
“We have created depth that will allow us to rest the closer when needed,” Farrell said. “If they pitch up to their capability, it’s a strong group.”
The Sox took notice of Hanrahan during an interleague series in Pittsburgh in 2011. In two saves against the Sox, Hanrahan threw 25 of his 35 pitches for strikes before sellout crowds.
His four-pitch strikeout of Adrian Gonzalez with a runner on second base to preserve a 6-4 victory June 25 was a career highlight for Hanrahan.
“When people look back at me as a Pirate, that’s one that stands out the most to them,” he said. “It was a fun weekend.”
Hanrahan has never pitched in Fenway Park or even visited the ballpark. But his wife, Kim, grew up a Red Sox fan in the Brockton area and has family in the area.
“It’s a change of pace from the NL Central, but I think it’s going to be great,” Hanrahan said.
Hanrahan will be a free agent after the 2013 season. He is eligible for arbitration and in line to land a one-year contract worth roughly $7 million.
The Red Sox also traded infielder Ivan De Jesus Jr., righthander Stolmy Pimentel, and first baseman/outfielder Jerry Sands to the Pirates.