On July 31, the Pirates were 52-51 and sitting four games out of the second Wild Card spot.
Nonetheless, the team decided to buy and sell, dealing closer Mark Melancon to the Nationals on July 30 in exchange for another Major League arm, Felipe Rivero. The team also picked up Antonio Bastardo and Ivan Nova on deadline day two days later.
When the Pirates made the Melancon trade, it appeared to make sense on paper.
The Pirates felt that they had other comparable options to handle the 9th inning role. In their minds, it was also advantageous to deal Melancon when he was a rental and would hit free agency at the end of the season, meaning that he would only be with them for another three months anyway.
So that's exactly what they did. The Pirates turned the right-hander into Felipe Rivero, a hard-throwing lefty that could be an immediate impact in the bullpen right after making the trade.
Rivero came with other pluses too. He is not a free agent until after the 2021 season and is much cheaper salary-wise than Melancon.
Taylor Hearn, a prospect, also came over in the deal, giving the Pirates some future value that they will be able to develop.
It's been a month since the Pirates made the trade with the Nationals, and their bullpen has not seen a significant drop off.
Since Aug. 1, the Pirates' bullpen has posted a 2.24 ERA in 76 1/3 innings pitched. This ranks second in the Majors, second only to the surging Royals.
FIP (3.78) and xFIP (3.74), however, suggest that the Pirates' bullpen has outperformed their abilities. This has led to an fWAR of 0.3, which is tied for 21st in the Majors in that stretch (coincidence or not, this ties them with the Nationals).
Closing games for the Pirates since the trade has been Tony Watson, who is 10-for-11 in saves this season. He has a 2.31 ERA and a nine-to-five strikeout-to-walk ratio over 11 2/3 innings pitched in that time. Though the peripherals suggest otherwise, he has, from the eye-test, done his job with Pittsburgh.
Rivero, too, has been great since the trade. In 15 games with the Pirates coming into Monday, he has posted a 0.64 ERA and a 22-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14 innings pitched. According to FanGraphs, he has been worth 0.1 fWAR.
Melancon, though, has been even better.
The freshly-minted Nationals' closer has a 0.77 ERA and has saved all six of his attempts, begging the question, did the Pirates make the right call in trading him?
At this moment in time, it looks like a yes. As long as their bullpen continues to exceed their peripherals, the Pirates appear to have made the correct decision to deal Melancon, who was not going to be a long-term piece in their bullpen.
This is a strategy that other small market teams in contention should pursue. When a team has a veteran player that they will not be able to keep in free agency at the end of the season, trading them for other Major League talent could be one possible solution.
Obviously, with the qualifying offer system in place, as it is now, this does not need to be done with all impending free agents. Rather, this works for players who will not warrant a qualifying offer but could still provide value in the form of a trade return.
Melancon was great for the Pirates, and he would have been an important piece to carry them to the postseason. But trading him may end up leading to more good than harm going forward.