First Pitch: Jason Grilli Is a Luxury, and the Bullpen Will Be Fine

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.

It wasn't long ago that many questioned whether Jason Grilli could close. (Photo by: David Hague)

It wasn’t long ago that many questioned whether Jason Grilli could close. (Photo by: David Hague)

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.

The Results

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.

Links and Notes

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Andrew Lambo, Alen Hanson, and Austin Meadows Homer.

**Minor League Schedule: Ten Games On Tuesday’s Schedule.

**DSL Prospect Watch: All-Star Game Results.

**Top Performers: Do the Pirates Have Their Future First Baseman in Alex Dickerson?

**Pirates 3rd Round Pick JaCoby Jones Expected to Miss the Rest of the Year.

Pirates

**Jason Grilli Exits Game With Right Forearm Discomfort.

**Taking a Look at the Pirates’ Bullpen Depth.

**Cubs Get a Big Return From the Rangers For Matt Garza.

**Ryan Braun Suspended For the Rest of the Season.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Nice blend of past, present, and future to say that the Pirates should not have a problem moving forward – the benefit of depth. Is it not great timing that Vic Black lit it up in the IL/PCL All Star game just last week? If Jason Grilli succumbs to the curse of Sports Illustrated and goes on the DL, I would expect the Pirates to promote Vic Black immediately and give him some time in multiple roles (7, 8, 9) from the bullpen.

    ‘Cutch starting to zero in on hitting straight out and the HR’s are coming in bunches at a time when we really need it.

  • joe g.

    I think they’ll call up Hughes and go with a set-up by committee between Watson, Hughes and Wilson. Wilson may get most of the opportunities, but I don’t see them designating one of them as “The” set-up man.

    • TNBucs

      You have to add Morris and Mazzaro to that group–Hurdle has shown his confidence in both by bringing them into high leverage situations.

    • buster09

      I just would add to the conversation that I saw Hughes pitch 2 innings against Bowie in Altoona last week ,and in the 2nd inning particularly,he threw the best 2 seam sinking fastballs I have ever seen him throw. 7 batters,1 hit, 4 SOs.

  • CalipariFan506

    Hurdle is going to ask for Hughes. He likes guys with experience and Hughes was important for him last season.

    Is there anywhere we can find a list of opt out candidates like Grilli was? Again with Hurdles propensity for veterans I think they’ll at least be checking some of these guys out.

  • https://profiles.google.com/105668650510920614054 Brian Bernard

    Not enough credit goes to Neal Huntington for this roster. The pitching depth has been the story of the year in my opinion. I think the offensive side of the roster had just as much potential. Honestly, I’m a little disappointed in the offense, especially what the offense could be if G. Sanchez and T. Snider were contributing at all like they are capable of. They’ve both shown better in past seasons and they need to step up now, in a pennant race. That’s the kind of roster push the team needs, Sanchez a power bat yesterday three times had RISP, one out…only produces one weak ground out RBI? I still believe these two guys were good signings by Neal, they just need to wake up.

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

      gabby totally molests left handed pitching. He’s here to platoon. He was facing rhp tonight. When he’s used properly Gabby is a nice asset. He was in the line up because ground Chuck may need a better 1B than Jones.
      .
      Yes, it would be nice if Gabby was a better overall hitter but we can’t act surprised that he’s a platoon guy. It’s no shock to anyone.

  • TNBucs

    Wilson in a SSS has been about as successful against RH as LH and he was already my favorite guy coming out of the pen. Physically, yes, I think they’ll be fine.

    I’m not a big fan of “chemistry” but I do worry about the mentality of the pen if they lose their leader–is he someone that has helped instill confidence in the others (i.e., will the shark tank mentality remain if they don’t have Grilli out there waiting for his turn in the 9th)?

    Mostly, though, I would just feel bad for Grilli if he can’t come back this season.

  • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

    But if Wilson pitches the eighth, who will pitch the seventh? You need a Proven Seventh-Inning Guy to go along with your Proven Set-up Man and your Proven Closer.

    And if anyone says “Lefties can’t be closers or set-up men”, I have only three words for them: John. Freaking. Franco.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      Sparky Lyle, Joel Hoerner, Ramon Hernandez.

      The list goes on.

      • emjayinTN

        How about one of our own? Mike Gonzalez – 24 Saves in a row in 2006. Sean Burnett was not a Closer, but he was an excellent guy out of the bullpen for the Pirates, Washington, and ?.

        • impliedi

          Aroldis Chapman

          • impliedi

            And let’s not forget Billy Wagner, Randy Myers, Dave Righetti, Brian Fuentes and the Great Wild Thing Mitch Williams! (all in the top 50 all-time for saves).

            • impliedi

              And Dan Plesac was a lefty, too, wasn’t he?

  • Y2JGQ2

    Maybe its time to have our starting pitchers step up and be the 7th inning guy. There is no reason why any of our starters (with the possible exception of Morton because he’s just off TJ surgery) to go 7 innings. Normally their pitch count is at or under 100 except for Liriano who has gone over 100 dozens in his career anyways. Stretch out the starters. They go 7, then losing Grilli means even less. If the 7th becomes the 8th and the 8th becomes Melancon’s time, then problem solved.

    • BostonsCommon

      The whole point of having a dominant ‘pen is to use it to shorten the game. I know a guy like AJ won’t want to hear it, but if the Pirates are leading and he’s gone 5 and 1/3 and doesn’t have his best stuff, take him out and hand the ball of to the best bullpen in the majors. Look at their record when leading after 6, 7, and 8 and the numbers will speak for themselves. You hand that pen a lead, and your’e going to win the game.

  • elgaupo

    Tim,

    How about instead of Black coming up, we bring up Kris Johnson? He can eat innings, he can be the “2nd LHP” since Wilson will go to the 8th and it keeps Jeanmar and Mazzaro in their multiple inning/spot starter roles.

    I know bringing up Black might be the easiest thing but I don’t see Johnson in the rotation next year so why not get some ML innings out of him before he’s someone else’s LOOGY.

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

      We have Watson too. I say we have an all LHP bullpen with Melancon as the “roogy”

      • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

        WA….lol

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    I guess only time will tell if we miss or don’t miss Grilli.

    I was feeling awfully comfortable with him in the game.

  • Cecil.

    Solution seems obvious. Hughes comes up, Melancon closes and in the short term Hurdle mixes and matches in the 8th inning just like he usually does in the 7th until someone dominates or Hurdle has enough confidence in one of them.

    I’m assuming that Grilli is going to the DL and with the way Hurdle likes to have defined roles for the 8th and 9th, he’s not going to wait long to declare one of Watson, Wilson, Morris or Hughes his 8th inning guy (I’m thinking Wilson.)

    Bullpen depth is a wonderful thing to have.

  • leadoff

    Could be a blessing in disguise, since Hurdle will not take a closer out of the game no matter how bad he pitches, last night perfect example, pitcher has to take himself out of the game, he was done before he took himself out of the game. Since Hurdle IMO, will probably handle anyone else like a normal relief pitcher, if they don’t have anything he might take them out of the game before it is lost.

  • jon6er

    1. This is the real team chemistry. Grilli is a players player and to a man his loss as an asset is second to their feelings of Jason’s personal loss for this to happen after how hard he has worked to stay in the game and contribute as he does. Hopefully it is minor. I’m a huge fan of guys like Grilli who get what life is really about.

    2. Three years ago management and even the fans would be saying I guess we have to use this guy or go out and get that guy. Now you can name 6 potential options and that is where you want your farm system to be.

  • justin14

    Would the Pirates consider the roster move today of activating Walker and putting Grilli on the dl. Or will it stick to Walker taking an infielders spot on the roster and a pitcher come up to take Grilli’s spot?

  • smurph

    If Grilli goes on the DL, and let’s say he is able to come back in mid-September, would he be eligible for the post-season roster, since he was on the DL? Does anyone know the answer?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      To be eligible for the post-season, a player needs to be on one of the following lists by August 31st at midnight:

      **the 25 roster
      **the disabled list
      **the bereavement list
      **the suspended list

      • smurph

        Thanks for answering my question, but I’m not sure that is totally accurate. If a player is on the 40-man, but not on the ML 25 man roster (or the disabled/bereavement/suspended) by Aug. 31, I don’t think he is eligible for the post-season. Am I correct?

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

          Actually it should just be the 25-man. I copied off of Wikipedia, which was wrong, and forgot to delete the 40-man part.

  • piratemike

    I feel really bad for Grilli. After all the years of struggling he has success like never before and bam at 36 it may be gone as quickly as it happened, for his sake I hope not, he is a guy you can root for compared to that phony in beer town.
    .
    The bullpen may be alright without Grilli but I hope that NH can find some help for this offense without emptying the farm.

  • Rebel

    V Black getting called up

  • CalipariFan506

    Leadoff brings up a point I never thought of. Not so much Hurdles dependence on closers during an outing. But last year Grilli struggled after the first week of August. I believe his ERA was 5+. There were two game in particular against the Cubs at pnc he blew in mid September. He was on pace to eclipse his career high in appearances. If he ran into late season struggles Hurdle was going to stick with him regardless.