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Melancon a valuable Hot Stove target

NL Reliever of the Year could bring immense return back to Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- Mark Melancon was the best closer in the National League this year, the winner of the Trevor Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year Award. He saved 51 games for the Pirates. In the highly volatile profession of relief pitching, he has been as close as it gets to a sure thing over the last three years.

Yet, Melancon is already the subject of trade rumors this offseason, as reported Tuesday that the 30-year-old right-hander has been made available by the Pirates. Why would the Bucs consider shopping Melancon while still trying to build a World Series contender?

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Melancon will be a free agent after next season, and he's expected to receive a significant raise in 2016 -- partly a product of his outstanding work each of the last three years. He is projected to make $10 million through the arbitration process, a sizable portion of the Pirates' potential payroll.

Melancon, first baseman Pedro Alvarez and second baseman Neil Walker are all due substantial raises heading into their final year before free agency. Can the Pirates realistically afford them while also adequately addressing their other needs?

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"A part of the rumor mill is we're just doing our jobs. We're not alone in Pittsburgh in doing that. That is what we're here to do," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told reporters Wednesday at the General Managers Meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. "Is there a way we can creatively make our team better short term or long term with the realization that, if we move one of those players that is under contract, we have to back-fill that spot?

"It might feel like we're taking a step backward, but we've been able to fill some holes in the past with some guys who have stepped in and done a tremendous job for us."

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Need an example? Look no further than the deal that brought Melancon to Pittsburgh. Joel Hanrahan was coming off back-to-back All-Star seasons for the Pirates when they sent him and Brock Holt to the Red Sox in exchange for a group of players that included Melancon.

From 2013-15, Melancon posted a 1.85 ERA and saved 100 games.

"We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't explore what might be out there," Huntington said. "How do we take a player with one year of contribution left and potentially look to turn that into two players with multiple years of contribution or one player that has a significant number of years of contribution remaining?"

If they do part ways with Melancon, the Pirates have an ideal replacement in Tony Watson. The 30-year-old left-hander has been a remarkably consistent setup man, and his 1.61 ERA since the 2013 All-Star break is the lowest in the Majors.

The Pirates also have a solid history of building bullpens and turning middle relievers and setup men -- Hanrahan, Jason Grilli, Melancon -- into dominant closers. Will they need to do it again in 2016?

"Our staff has done a great job to help the player either be what he was before or be better than he was before," Huntington said. "It's been back-end bullpen guys. It's been middle relievers and long relievers. It's been incredibly efficient for us to do that."

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.
Read More: Pittsburgh Pirates, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez