FORT MYERS, Fla. — If one of his college teammates had gotten better grades, Mark Melancon might never have become the National League's best closer.
In 2004, Melancon began his freshman season at the University of Arizona as a middle reliever. By the time the team went to the College World Series, Melancon had earned the closer's role.
The following season, coach Andy Lopez decided to move Melancon into the starting rotation.
“But the closer they'd brought in didn't make grades,” Melancon said. “So I just went back to that role.”
It was the first twist in a long road that led Melancon from a rerouted college career to the back end of the Pirates' bullpen.
Melancon has closed out games — often with happy endings, but sometimes not — for six minor league clubs, the New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox. Last year, he set a Pirates record by collecting 51 saves and won the Trevor Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year award.
A two-time All-Star, Melancon will make $9.65 million this year and is poised to snare an even bigger paycheck this winter as a free agent.
How much different would things be if Melancon had become a back-of-the-rotation starter at Arizona more than a decade ago?
“Yeah, I've wondered about it,” Melancon said with a smile. “You are able to paint the picture a little bit longer as a starter. That would be fun. I'd like to see how it would work out. But I guess that's not in the cards for me.”
Many relievers are converted starters. Not Melancon. The Yankees drafted the right-hander in the ninth round in 2006, planning all along to groom him as a closer.
“We are all failed starters down there in the bullpen — except Mark,” setup man Tony Watson said in a respectful tone.
Melancon could have begged the Yankees to give him a shot as a starter, but that would have meant more time in the minor leagues.
“I kind of came through the ranks quickly, so I didn't want to take a step back,” Melancon said. “Everybody wants to take the quickest way to the big leagues.”
Melancon spent two seasons with the Yankees then was dealt to the Astros for slugger Lance Berkman. Melancon got 20 saves in 2011, then was dealt to the Red Sox.
“Everywhere I've been, every pitching coach has said, ‘Man, I think you could be a good starter, but …' ” Melancon said. “I'm OK with it.”
By the time Melancon was traded to the Pirates, he was firmly established as a reliever. He didn't become the full-time closer, though, until Jason Grilli faltered midway through the 2014 season.
Closers are a bullpen's high-wire performers; even a slight slip can lead to a fall. When Melancon endured a bumpy stretch last April, alarms went off.
Do failed closers end their days as No. 5 starters? Melancon can't provide that answer — he quickly righted himself, wound up an All-Star and put together a record-setting season.
An experienced evaluator from another team believes Melancon still has the stuff of an elite closer.
“You hate to compare anyone to Mariano Rivera, but Melancon's cutter is so good command-wise, it's unbelievable,” the scout said. “He can dot both sides of the plate with that cut fastball. His location is impeccable.”
Would Melancon's command be as good if he had to get 18 or more outs a game instead of three? Would his intensity be as sharp? Perhaps.
But Melancon also knows that taking the unusual path of being drafted and developed as a reliever helped him reach his full potential. In that sense, maybe he is a trailblazer.
“Given the way bullpens are shaping up now, I think guys will be drafted as specialized relievers more often,” Melancon said. “Half of the game is bullpen anymore. If you can draft a guy who know will be a good closer or a good late-inning guy, I can see how there's a lot of value in that.”