Bob Smizik: Pirates need a closer

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As the Pirates keep rolling -- their latest a 3-2 win over Philadelphia -- they have the look of a team almost without a weakness. Almost.

The hitters have been good. Through last Friday, the Pirates were fifth in the National League in runs. The starting pitching has been very good recently, largely due to the unexpected help from Edinson Volquez, Vance Worley and Jeff Locke. Volquez was the winning pitcher Saturday -- one run, four hits, four walks in seven innings. What a great free-agent signing by Neal Huntington.

The bullpen, though, is not so good. The old wives’ tale that Huntington is expert in building bullpens is taking a hit this season. Pirates relievers are ninth in earned run average, seventh in WHIP, 12th in batting average against, 13th in K/9 and eighth in K/B (all stats through last Friday).

Former closer Jason Grilli has been traded and Mark Melancon, his successor, does not look like a good fit for the role. Melancon gave up a leadoff home run in the ninth to Marlon Byrd Saturday before retiring the next three batters.

Pitching in the eighth inning this year, Melancon has a 1.50 ERA, a .145 BAA and has not allowed a homer in 18 innings.

Pitching in the ninth, he has a 3.32 ERA, a .252 BAA and two homers in 21 2/3 innings.

Last year he also pitched better in the eighth, although the difference wasn’t as marked.

Many have called for Tony Watson to assume the closer’s role. Here’s a better, bolder and more expensive call: Houston Street.

Street is the outstanding closer of the San Diego Padres, who can be a free agent at the end of the season. The Padres are nine games under .500 and neither a contender in the NL West nor for the wild-card. Street, 30, will be available.

Street blew his first save of the season Saturday, making him 23 for 24. He has the best save percentage in MLB. His ERA is 1.13, his WHIP 0.78. Right-handed hitters were batting .121 against him, lefties .188.

Street, of course, would not come cheap. The Pirates would have to part with a good prospect. Huntington has been slow to trade top prospects. The best two he has dealt are outfielder Robbie Grossman and middle infielder Dilson Herrera.

Maybe the Padres would be interested in Luis Heredia, who is struggling in low Class A but is only 19. He received a $2.6 million bonus in 2010 and once was a top-five prospect. Or outfielder Harold Ramirez, a current top-10 prospect. Or outfielder Willy Garcia, currently ranked 11th by MLB.com.

The Oakland Athletics jump-started the trading season Friday by dealing their No. 1 and No. 2 prospects to the Chicago Cubs for starting pitching help. That sent a message throughout every clubhouse in MLB: There’s a GM who wants to win NOW!

Since he already had the winningest team in MLB, some might, understandably, call Billy Beane’s move reckless. It also was fearless.

Huntington is not a reckless/fearless guy. But he has made shrewd deadline deals every season. His team’s current greatest need is in the bullpen. Someone like Street would change the makeup of that bullpen. It would put Melancon back in the eighth inning, where he has been exceptional, and Watson in the seventh, where he also has been outstanding. It would leave Justin Wilson and Jared Hughes as the fourth and fifth men in the bullpen.

With one move, Huntington could take his bullpen from mediocre to good and do the same with the Pirates‘‍ playoff hopes.


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