The Diamondbacks have added a proven closer to their murky bullpen mix, signing reliever Mark Melancon to a two-year contract with a $14MM guarantee. The ISE Baseball client will receive a salary of $6MM in both 2022 and 2023. The deal also comes with a $5MM mutual option for 2024, which includes a $2MM buyout.
Melancon is coming off his seventh career sub-3.00 ERA season — his second in as many years. After signing with the Padres for a comparatively paltry one year and $3MM shortly before the start of 2021 Spring Training, the four-time All-Star led the big leagues in saves for the second time in his career, notching 39 in 64 appearances.
Though something of a journeyman — and hardly a flamethrower by today’s standards — Melancon has established himself as one of the game’s most consistently effective relievers. Across a 13-year career with the Yankees, Astros, Red Sox, Pirates, Nationals, Giants, Braves, and Padres, Melancon has covered 670 2/3 innings with a sparkling 2.79 ERA (2.94 FIP). His 244 saves ranked fourth among active players, behind only Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, and Aroldis Chapman.
Unusually unreliant on the strikeout for a closer (his 22.6% strikeout rate barely exceeds the major league average of 20.6%), Melancon relies on an elevated ground ball rate (56.4%; league average is 43.8%) to limit the longball; indeed, his home run rate of 1.4% is less than half the 2.9% big-league average. Though now entering his age-37 season, these trends have shown no signs of decline; since 2019, Melancon’s GB% and HR% are 58.7% and 1.4%, respectively — right in line with his career numbers.
Though he hasn’t had a poor season since at least 2012, when he posted a 6.20 ERA (4.58 FIP) in Boston, Melancon has experienced something of a late-career resurgence. From 2013 to 2016, he put together 290 innings of 1.80 ERA ball — good for an eye-popping 213 ERA+ — to go along with 147 saves for the Pirates and Nationals, including a majors-leading 51 for Pittsburgh in 2015. He turned those numbers into a four-year, $62MM pact with the Giants after the 2016 season, though a blood flow issue limited his availability and effectiveness. In 115 1/3 innings in San Francisco, Melancon compiled a still-solid 3.67 ERA (3.32 FIP) before heading to Atlanta in a deadline-day trade in 2019. He’s since pitched 108 1/3 innings of 2.66 ERA ball between the Braves and Padres.
The move to Phoenix represents something of a homecoming for Melancon, who played college ball at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The move is at least a bit surprising, though, as D-backs GM Mike Hazen had frankly admitted the club is unlikely to in contend 2022. Coming off an NL-worst 52-110 record in 2021, Arizona looks at least a few years from contention, even as several of their top players (Ketel Marte, Zac Gallen, Carson Kelly) are under team control for several years to come.
Arizona will hope that Melancon can stabilize a bullpen in need of a few more arms but with several serviceable pieces. Caleb Smith, Noe Ramirez, and J.B. Wendelken will return after solid years, and 23-year-old Luis Frias will look to build on a promising debut in 2021. Few other relievers were able to string multiple solid outings together, however, as the club finished third from the bottom with a 5.08 ERA on the year — ahead of only the Nationals and Orioles.
The Diamondbacks may not contend in 2022, but Hazen’s decision to give real (if comparatively modest) money to Melancon could signal that he’s sincere in his stated preference to hold onto his best young players. Marte in particular would return a king’s ransom, but Arizona does have a top-10 farm system (No. 9, per MLB Pipeline) that includes three top-50 prospects in Jordan Lawlar, Corbin Carroll, and Alek Thomas (though only Thomas is close to big-league-ready).
According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Melancon’s $6MM 2022 salary will put the D-backs just north of $55MM in salary commitments for 2022 (excluding salaries for players eligible for arbitration), a big step down from last year’s roughly $96MM number. Hazen’s comments likely signal that the club intends to remain below that number, but he will like have space to continue to add should he choose to do so.
Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic was the first to report the signing; Jeff Passan of ESPN reported the guaranteed money; and Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic tweeted Melancon’s annual salaries and the terms of his option.