NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Giants never tried to hide their offseason plan. From a downcast season-ending press conference, to the General Managers Meetings, to the first days of December, team officials insisted that the focus was on adding a big name to the ninth inning.
In the opening hours of baseball’s annual Winter Meetings, the Giants found their guy.
Mark Melancon, a three-time All-Star and one of the premier relievers in the game, signed a four-year, $62 million deal. The ninth inning is set. The Giants believe the bullpen is set, too.
“The core of the bullpen was in place. We felt that closer was the one area we didn’t want to have any doubts about,” general manager Bobby Evans said Monday. “It gives all of the club peace of mind and confidence. As many close games as we play, we have a lockdown guy in the ninth.”
Few have had a firmer grip on the ninth in recent years than Melancon. In his three full seasons as a closer, he has led Major League Baseball with 131 saves. He has a 2.60 ERA in eight seasons and last season posted a microscopic 1.64 for the Pirates and Nationals, closing 47 games in 51 chances.
Melancon has 10 blown saves over the past three seasons. The Giants had nine in September alone.
“We’re glad he chose us,” Evans said, smiling.
When Melancon completed a physical on Monday afternoon in Scottsdale, the finishing touch was put on the richest contract ever given to a reliever. The deal put the Giants back over the competitive balance tax and carries a $17 million average annual value. The previous Giants closer, Santiago Casilla, was on a deal that originally guaranteed him $15 million total over three seasons. Melancon has blown that out of the water, and he could be in line for one more payday.
The deal includes an opt-out after the second year, similar to the one given to Johnny Cueto a year ago. Melancon will get a $20 million signing bonus with $8 million deferred. He is due $4 million in salary in 2017 and $10 million in 2018, and if he opts out, he gets that money plus the full signing bonus, turning this into a two-year, $34 million pact. If Melancon doesn’t opt out, he will make $14 million in each of his final two seasons. He also received a full no-trade clause. That was simply the price of doing business for the Giants, who have avoided big-money closers since the Armando Benitez disaster.
“You would have loved for this market to have been more in line with past markets, but the demand for closers is high and there were some big clubs pursuing them,” Evans said. “It certainly created a competition.”
The Giants were edged out in a competition for Melancon’s services in July, when they fell just short of the Nationals’ offer to the Pirates. They had the winning bid on Monday, and league sources indicated that the Nationals finished second this time around.
Melancon took advantage of the best closer market in MLB history, and he was the first of the Big Three to ink a deal. The Giants met with Melancon in San Francisco in November and also visited former Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen at his home in Arizona. They never met face-to-face with the third big name on the market, Aroldis Chapman. Both Jansen and Chapman are expected to shoot past Melancon’s current high mark for money given to a relief pitcher.
The Giants all along felt that Melancon was the right fit of the three. Evans noted his durability — he has made at least 70 appearances in five of the last six seasons — and said Melancon impressed team officials with a description of his preparation process. Melancon primarily throws a cutter in the low 90s and he’s not the traditional power pitcher in the ninth. He struck out just 8.2 batters per nine innings last season but he allowed only three homers and walked just 12 batters. Melancon ranked eighth in the Majors in average exit velocity against, and the Giants believe that pitch-to-soft-contact approach is perfectly suited for an infield that has two Gold Glove Award winners up the middle.
“He’s a high ground-ball rate guy, which is perfect for our defense,” Evans said. “His preparation and approach — we just feel he’ll be a great fit for us.”
Melancon will be introduced to fans and the media on Friday at AT&T Park. When he dons the orange and black, the Giants believe he’ll be the final piece to a championship contender. They do not intend to make big waves in the rest of the market, although Evans said they would remain open-minded about additions to the outfield or bench. In the bullpen, the order is just about set. Any additions will likely be non-roster invitees at this point, tasked with trying to break into a group that includes Will Smith, George Kontos, Cory Gearrin, Hunter Strickland, Derek Law, Josh Osich, Steven Okert and other young pitchers.
Evans said he feels good about the collection — now that he’s found his closer.
“He'll make the rest of the bullpen better,” he said of Melancon.