I feel like I’m traveling back in time with tonight’s article. About seven months ago the Pittsburgh Pirates re-signed Jason Grilli. Joel Hanrahan was still on the roster, so Grilli was viewed as a great set-up man. Then, a few weeks later, Hanrahan was traded to the Boston Red Sox, with Mark Melancon being one of the key pieces coming back. This led to two exhausting off-season debates.
1. Can Jason Grilli Close?
On one side of this debate, you had people who believe the ninth inning is sacred. That it takes a special skill to pitch in the ninth inning, and that even if you have dominant numbers in the eight inning, you might not have that special stuff to get three outs in a different inning.
On the other side of the debate you have people who are only looking at the numbers. They don’t believe that it takes anything special to close, other than a really good reliever. They know that “Proven Closers” aren’t born with a season of experience already under their belt, and that every “Proven Closer” started off with question marks from the first side of this debate.
2. Is Mark Melancon a Good Pitcher?
There wasn’t a debate over whether Melancon could be a set-up guy. Instead, the debate was whether he would be any good at all. One side pointed to Melancon’s advanced metrics and showed that he was a huge bounce back candidate from his numbers last year. The other side pointed to his ERA and used that to say he was a horrible reliever.
What we learned is that Jason Grilli could close. He was dominant in 2012, and the ninth inning didn’t change that. We also saw that Melancon was indeed a huge bounce back candidate, although I don’t think anyone had him as being one of the best relievers in baseball. The best I said was that Grilli/Melancon would be just as effective as Hanrahan/Grilli, and it turns out that Grilli and Melancon have been more effective.
The New Arguments
With Jason Grilli going down, you’re going to hear a lot of the same arguments all over again. With the trade deadline coming up, you’re going to hear about how the Pirates now need to add a reliever. You’ll hear about how Melancon can’t close. You’ll hear about how the Pirates will struggle without Grilli and will need an 8th inning guy.
Losing Jason Grilli isn’t going to go unnoticed. He is one of the best relievers in the game. But the Pirates also have one of the best bullpens in the game. They’ve got a ton of depth to deal with any injuries. Losing a top reliever is going to hurt most teams, but it hurts the Pirates a lot less than most. So let’s get to those questions you’re going to see.
1. Can Mark Melancon Close?
I guarantee this will come up. People still believe in “Proven Closers”, even though we’ve seen guys like Grilli and Hanrahan go from great 8th inning guys to great 9th inning guys. It’s best to just wait this out. Anyone who asks this about Melancon, and bemoans the loss of Grilli was probably asking the same question about Grilli while bemoaning the loss of Hanrahan.
2. Who Will Pitch in the Eighth Inning?
This should be as simple as saying “Justin Wilson”. But Wilson is a left-hander, and when it comes to bullpens, MLB teams are funny. The best reliever can only pitch in the ninth. The second best reliever can only pitch in the eighth. If either of those guys is a left-hander, he can’t work in the role and can only be used in high leverage situations where it benefits the team to have a lefty. Actually, that’s how all relievers should be used, with the best ones going first.
Even if Wilson isn’t an option, you’ve got a lot of guys pitching well. The Pirates have the sixth best bullpen xFIP in baseball. Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro aren’t 8th inning names, but their stats are not far from Wilson. Then there’s the depth options like Jared Hughes, Vic Black, or Duke Welker. The Pirates have no shortage of hard-throwing and effective relievers.
The only issue here is that you don’t have an eighth inning name pitching. You just have guys putting up great numbers. So if you think that getting three outs in the eighth inning is different than getting three outs in any other inning, there will be a concern. Call it the “Proven Set-Up Man” question.
3. Will the Pirates Make a Trade?
Here is a brief history of some of the moves the Pirates have made for relievers. I’m going to go in whatever order I think of these, because it’s late.
**Claimed Chris Resop off waivers.
**Acquired Joel Hanrahan and Mark Melancon after down years.
**Signed Jason Grilli away from the Philadelphia Phillies when he was in their minor league system and had an out clause in his deal.
**Converted Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes from minor league starters to major league relievers.
**Acquired Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro for non-prospects.
Then you’ve got a ton of other “No one wanted them so they signed in late January” free agents, waiver claims, and smaller trades. Not all of the moves have worked out (last year’s additions of Chad Qualls and Hisanori Takahashi for example), but a good enough majority have. In the process, a precedent has been set: the Pirates don’t pay for relievers.
So if you’re expecting them to go out and add an established reliever now to replace Grilli, you might be disappointed. That’s not what the Pirates have ever done. I would be shocked if they start now.
4. BONUS: Should the Pirates move Gerrit Cole to the bullpen?
I’ve seen this floating around a few times tonight. There would be no reason to do this. The Pirates have so many hard throwing relievers that Cole would just be another name in the mix, rather than something special that the team doesn’t have. He has more value as a starting pitcher. Now if we’re talking about the playoffs, where you don’t need five starters, then go for it. But the Pirates need Cole in the rotation more than they need him in the bullpen.
Jason Grilli is a Luxury
Here’s the truth about Grilli: he’s a luxury. The Pirates have a strong bullpen, and the spotlight of the bullpen goes on the closer. But the Pirates bullpen is strong beyond just Grilli.
If you don’t care about the significance of the innings, then you’ve still got Mark Melancon pitching one of the final two frames. All you’re doing is downgrading from Grilli to someone like Wilson or Mazzaro in the other inning. Grilli is a great reliever, but Wilson and Mazzaro have also been strong this year. There is a downgrade, but it’s not massive, and it doesn’t take the Pirates from contenders to pretenders.
Hopefully Grilli’s injury isn’t serious. Hopefully he comes back sooner rather than later. Why wouldn’t you want one of the top relievers in the game back ASAP? But the Pirates bullpen isn’t just Grilli and Melancon. Even without Grilli they’ve got a great closer and a good set-up man that can anchor the bullpen. There might be some who disagree, but they’re probably the same people who disagreed when I said that the Pirates wouldn’t miss Joel Hanrahan.
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