If you were to sum up the 2011 season for the Astros thus far, it is safe to say it would probably include the phrase “most unstable bullpen in recent memory”. No one would deny you of this fact, but there have been a couple bright spots if you look into the abyss long enough. As the season ages on, Mark Melancon is not a bright spot that you can only find visible by squinting; he is making his presence known.
Melancon’s relieving habits may be new to Astro fans due to his brief stint in Houston last season after being acquired in the trade that sent the Big Puma to the Bronx, but Mark is well acquainted with pitching in relief. Pitching for the Arizona Wildcats in college, Mark was handed the reigns to the closer’s role during his sophomore season due to his success as a true freshman where he made a record 29 appearances for a freshman. That sophomore season led to him recording a school record 11 saves while pitching the most innings on the team only behind the primary two starters for the Wildcats. Starting his junior campaign on the Roger Clemens watch list (an award for college’s best pitcher, rather than worst liar), Melancon was shut down early on in the year due to elbow pain that scared possible major league suitors thinking that he may require Tommy John surgery. This caused Melancon, a sure-lock first rounder prior to his junior year campaign, to trickle down to the Yankees in the ninth round. Offered a $600,000 contract by the Bronx Bombers, Melancon was able to sign a contract that was reserved for a second round pick after having an MRI done that showed the injury was an issue of the past.
Melancon’s pro career got off on the wrong foot, though, as he experienced the shoulder soreness again in 2006, his first season in the pros. This time, Mark was shut down and required to get Tommy John surgery causing him to miss the entirety of the 2007 season. But that wasn’t enough to keep MM down. The Yankees gave the reliever a vote of confidence in 2008 when they called him up to pitch with the ball club in spring training. Recording a save in his only appearance of the spring before being sent down, you have to wonder if this was the motivation that Melancon needed. Mark started the season in A+ ball, but blazed a trail to AAA Scranton by the end of the season. Recording 20 innings of 2.70 ERA baseball at the end of 2008, Mark was back on track to showing people that his injury was a thing of the past… and he was right. 2009 led to the same success with Melancon throwing 53 innings of sub 1 WHIP baseball coupled with a K/9 ratio over 9.
Though his 2010 wasn’t as dominant as previous years, he had caught the attention of scouts. By putting a year of healthy baseball under his belt after TJ surgery, Mark showed that he now had the durability he needed to stay healthy at the major league level. With aces like Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson, and Chris Carpenter (prior to 2011) making TJ comebacks look easy, Mark probably saw his stock rise with every pain free inning he pitched. Prior to the expiration of the trade deadline, the Astros would move their franchise’s face for Melancon and second sacker Jimmy Paredes in a trade that shows the Astros looking to the future instead of just drudging along with the oldies.
So how is MM, the Colorado native, now? Well after 45+ innings with the Third Coasters, Melancon can boast an ERA of 2.45 and has taken over the closer’s role after Brandon Lyon decided to implode. In 8 opportunities where he has appeared with less than a three run lead or in a tie game as closer, Melancon has only faltered once by allowing an uncharacteristic homer to the Braves in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game. Perhaps he can blame it on the funk that the bullpen was in, but Mark is a man that has owned up to the role in the past, and you can only imagine this was a slight hiccup for a man that will still possibly qualify as a rookie in the 2011 season.
With the Astros looking to get younger this season and in the future, look for Mark to be one of the bright young stars that has locked down a role for the future: our closer. This man of 26 years not only has promise, but the skill set needed to continue his recent success. Rest assured, Astro fans. This man wants us to not only win at the end of games, but will pitch at a level that shows this as well.