Bob Smizik: Trade of failed closers

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Just how concerned the Pirates were about the state of their bullpen -- a weak link in the team’s recent resurgence -- was made clear Friday when they traded Jason Grilli, once their outstanding closer, to the Los Angeles Angels for Ernesto Frieri, himself a former closer and one who had a 12.36 earned run average this month.

The deal came just hours before the legend of Josh Harrison added another chapter, as the former little-used reserve again seized the hero’s role with a game-winning double in the 11th inning that gave the Pirates a 3-2 win over the New York Mets.

Harrison is the gift that keeps on giving for the Pirates. He's a former bottom-of-the-roster guy who has emerged as one of the most important players on the team -- whether he is a starter, which he was not Friday night, or in the lineup at second base, third base, left field or right field.

By contrast, Grilli and Frieri are the gifts that have stopped giving. The intent of both teams was obvious: They are hopeful that a new team and a different situation will be beneficial to the sagging careers of the two pitchers.

Grilli was a classic feel-good story -- the guy who made the most of his last chance and parlayed it into an All-Star slot last season. But his performance declined as that season progressed and got worse this season. He was recently removed from his closer’s role.

Frieri had 60 saves with the Angels in 2012 and 2013, after coming over from the San Diego Padres. But he struggled most of this season and those struggles climaxed this month as he was scored upon in five of his past nine appearances.

“It’s one of those change-of-scenery deals that both clubs are looking at guys they’ve liked in the past who are currently struggling,” said General Manager Neal Huntington. “The human part of it makes it really hard. At the same time Ernesto is a guy we’ve pursued for a couple of years, haven’t been able to get him.”

It is never a good idea to have former key players hanging around in a significantly lesser role and still not doing well in that job. That’s not to suggest Grilli was any kind of problem within the clubhouse. It is to suggest that the travails of such players can become a distraction to the rest of the team.

It’s not clear what role Frieri will have with the Pirates, but it’s unlikely he will open in the back end of the bullpen. In eight innings this month, he allowed 11 runs on 14 hits. Opponents batted .368 against him.

Jared Hughes, the winning pitcher Friday night with two strong innings, has solidified his place alongside Tony Watson and Mark Melancon as the relievers manager Clint Hurdle will go to when the Pirates have a lead late. Hughes has a 1.80 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP.

Frieri’s numbers for the season are a 6.39 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP and a .268 BAA. He has 11 saves. He is 28 and his $3.8 million salary on a one-year deal just about matches Grilli’s, who was making $4 million.

Although Frieri has two more years of team control, it is unlikely -- barring an amazing turnaround -- the Pirates would be interested in bringing him back. His salary next season, in his second year of arbitration, would not likely be one the Pirates would be interested in taking on considering the quality of his 2014 work.

For the short-term, the Pirates have hopes. “He’s a guy that’s had success as a closer at the big-league level, that has quality stuff, that has a good strikeout rate,” Huntington said. “We believe we can get him back on the right track.”

It is a bitter ending for Grilli, who signed what most believed to be a hometown-discount deal with the Pirates after the 2012 season -- two years, $6.75 million.

Huntington said, ''He was shaken up. This is the hard part of the game. The human element is part of it. I think he was surprised, truly surprised that we moved him at this point in time. I think he was planning on working through his challenges here, as we were. Then this came together and we decided to make a move.”

• • •

• With two out in the 11th inning at PNC Park, in front of another capacity crowd, Harrison doubled home Clint Barmes, who had walked, with the winning run. The hit came an inning after Harrison, who entered the game in the eighth as a pinch-hitter for starting pitcher Brandon Cumpton, amazingly escaped a rundown -- after he had been caught off second base on a bouncer to the pitcher -- that gave the Pirates runners on second and third with no outs. They could not capitalize on that opportunity. An inning later, Harrison took matters into his own hands.

• Cumpton pitched well again -- seven innings, six hits, two runs, one walk, four strikeouts -- but still is almost certain to be optioned back to Indianapolis to make room for Gerrit Cole, who is coming off the disabled list to start this afternoon against the Mets.

• Jordy Mercer drove in the first two Pirates runs with a bases-loaded single in the fourth, which tied the game at 2. ... With Starling Marte still injured, Travis Snider started in left field, where Harrison had been playing, and was hitless in five at-bats. ... Gregory Polanco was hitless in four at-bats.


First Published June 28, 2014 12:00 AM

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