Today we continue our series making the case to bring back each of the Braves set to hit the free-agent market this offseason, this time looking at 35-year-old right-handed reliever Mark Melancon.
I’ll admit, the trade that landed Melancon back at the deadline in 2019 initially looked a bit over the top. A top-20 prospect within the organization in righty Tristan Beck and an able big-league pitcher in Dan Winkler seemed like quite an overpay when considering Melancon’s age and the money owed to him ($28 million over the next two seasons). However, once out of a Giants uniform and into a Braves one, the veteran reliever flourished, increasing his strikeouts by almost two batters per nine (8.5 to 10.3) and dropping his walk rate to below one batter per nine (3.1 to 0.9). For 21 innings during the second half of the 2019 campaign, the Braves once again had a dominant closer they could depend on.
2020 was much of the same for Melancon, and he even seemed to build off those strong numbers from the previous season. In the same amount of appearances (23 games), the 6-foot-1 righty posted a stingy 2.78 ERA to go along with 11 saves, matching his save total from his first half-season with the team last year. That 1-WAR campaign in 2020 overshadowed his lack of strikeouts (5.6 K/9), and Melancon’s consistency kept him in the closer’s role essentially all year long. He also pitched exceptionally in the playoffs, tossing 6.1 scoreless innings and allowing just a .091 AVG.
But now the righty is set to hit the open market, and having been on track to earn nearly $40 million over the last three seasons combined (before the pandemic cut salaries), Melancon would be right to command a similar salary — somewhere in the $10-15 million range.
Of the six Atlanta relievers entering free agency this offseason (not counting Darren O’Day, whose option was just declined by the Braves), Melancon is perhaps the one arm the Braves can’t afford to let go. I mentioned his numbers since coming over from San Francisco, and really those stats alone should justify bringing him back. Plus, with fellow bullpen mate Shane Greene ALSO a free agent this winter, the team will need to retain at least one of the two.
The fact that lefty Will Smith, the Braves blockbuster signing last offseason, didn’t exactly dominate in Atlanta also makes bringing back Melancon a critical task. Smith landed a three-year, $40 million deal last November, but in a Braves uniform this past season, he pitched to a 4.50 ERA and surrendered seven home runs in just 16 innings (compared to 10 HR in 65.1 IP in 2019). Everyone expected Smith to eventually take the closer role from Melancon, but that wasn’t the case.
Regardless, even with his drastic drop in punch outs, Melancon provides the kind of stability the Braves have always needed in the later innings, and with him obviously still extremely effective in high-leverage situations, there’s reason to believe that trend can continue for at least a couple more seasons.
Last winter, GM Alex Anthopoulos invested heavily in the team’s bullpen, and though re-signing Melancon to a long-term deal may be unnecessary (he’ll turn 36 next March), a one or two-year pact that keeps this relief core mostly intact seems appropriate.