Bob Smizik: Pirates need a new closer

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The Pirates have lost nine of their past 12 games and, obviously, have problems. Front and center among those problems is not right field or first base. Front and center is Jason Grilli, onetime closer supreme.

Grilli gave up a ninth-inning home run to Ryan Braun on Sunday, which sent the Pirates to extra innings against the Milwaukee Brewers and eventually to a 14-inning, 3-2 loss. The night before, Grilli gave up a two-run, ninth-inning homer to Braun, which resulted in an 8-7 loss.

It was the third blown save of the season for Grilli. He had two in 2013.

On his pre-game show Sunday, manager Clint Hurdle was chuckling about the number of people he had seen that morning who wanted Grilli dismissed from his closer’s role. He probably doesn’t think that thought is quite so humorous today.

The Jason Grilli who is pitching for the Pirates today is not the same Jason Grilli who was near-perfect for the first three months of the 2013 season. At the All-Star break, Grilli had a 1.99 ERA and a ridiculous .176 batting-average against.

His ERA in July was 6.35. After missing all of August with injury, his September ERA was 4.70. He pitched 3⅓ scoreless innings in the postseason, but this month his ERA is 4.50. Something is amiss.

Before the All-Star Game last year, Grilli’s K/9 was 13.94. Since, it has been 9.35.

Hurdle could continue to show faith in Grilli. That’s what managers do and that’s what players -- not just the player in question -- prefer. They like to know their jobs are not going to disappear with a bad outing or two. There is, of course, something to be said for such a strategy.

But Hurdle must think seriously about replacing Grilli. If it were only this month, Grilli would deserve more time. But he has not pitched consistently well since last June. That might be good enough for the front end of the bullpen, but it’s not good enough for the back end and for the closer.

If the Pirates want to remain a competitive team, they can’t be giving games away like they did Saturday and Sunday. If it were the Grilli of old pitching in those two games, the Pirates would not be 8-11, they would be 10-9. They would not be six games behind the first-place Brewers, they would be two games behind.

After the game, Hurdle was questioned about Grilli. He defended the pitcher but did not say he would stick with him.

“We wanted to give him the ball back as quickly as possible to close a game. It is the first time in two years plus he had back-to-back bad marks. That's going to show where everyone else is with Grilli. You jump off Grilli's boat? Do his teammates, fans, do I? Or do you stick with him?”

It’s not like Hurdle doesn’t have other viable options. The obvious one is Mark Melancon, who filled in when Grilli was on the disabled list last season. In 2013, among pitchers with more than 60 innings, Melancon had a 1.39 ERA, which was second in the National League to Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta’s excellent closer. His WHIP of 0.96 with ninth-best and his OPS-against of .511 was fourth-best.

In replacing Grilli, Melancon saved 14 of his first 15 games. However, he blew three consecutive saves in late September, two while in the closer's role. He also blew a save, in a set-up role, in the postseason and had a 9.82 ERA in October.

The other option is Tony Watson, who was spectacular in the second half of 2013. His post-All Star Game ERA was 0.69. From Aug. 3 to the end of the season, he did not allow an earned run. He has, however, allowed earned runs in two of his nine appearances this season.

Melancon is a right-hander, the preferred option for closers since most batters are right-handed. Watson is a left-hander. But Watson has done better both in his career and last season against right-handed batters than Melancon. Melancon has previous closing experience with Houston in 2012 in addition to what he did last year. He has 37 career saves. Watson has two.

Hurdle might prefer a committee of Watson and Melancon, a move that would leave open the return of Grilli. But whichever way he chooses to go for the immediate future, he needs to move away, at least temporarily, from Grilli.

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