Being a major league closer can be a volatile gig. The latest example of that was demonstrated by the Pirates and Angels, who swapped struggling relievers on Friday.
Pittsburgh sent Jason Grilli to Anaheim in exchange for Ernesto Frieri, a somewhat surprising deal given the success each pitcher had as his team’s closer last season. Grilli racked up 74 strikeouts in 50 innings, with a 2.70 ERA and 33 saves. Frieri notched 37 saves and a 3.80 ERA, striking out 98 batters in 68.2 innings.
Oh, so much can change in a year. Grilli has blown four saves in 15 opportunities, compiling a 4.87 ERA with 21 strikeouts and 11 walks in 20.1 innings. In the process, he lost the Pirates’ closer job to Mark Melancon. Frieri has three blown saves in 14 opportunities, posting a 6.39 ERA with 33 hits allowed (eight of them home runs) and 38 strikeouts in 31 innings. As a result, the Angels replaced him at closer with Joe Smith.
So what we have here is a good old-fashioned challenge trade, with two teams exchanging similar players to see if new environments can yield better results. That’s exactly how Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto framed the deal when speaking with reporters afterwards.
“We are trading a struggling closer for a struggling closer with the idea that a change of scenery will help both,” said Dipoto, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times‘ Bill Shaikin.
Both teams rank among the top five MLB teams in blown saves. But at first glance, the Pirates appear to be getting the better end of this deal.
Frieri, soon to be 29 years old, is nearly eight years younger than Grilli and is under team control through next season. There looks to be some potential upside with him. Pittsburgh also doesn’t necessarily need Frieri to be its closer, as Melancon is already on hand for that role. But Melancon has blown three of 17 save opportunities himself, and Pirates GM Neal Huntington pointed out Frieri’s closing experience after making the deal.
Meanwhile, Grilli is 38 years old and hasn’t really been the same pitcher since suffering a strained flexor tendon that sidelined him for six weeks last season. He was also out for four weeks earlier this year with an oblique strain. Grilli revived his career with three excellent years with the Pirates, so his success last season could hardly be called a fluke. But at his age and a slight drop in velocity, it has to be asked whether Grilli has peaked and is now riding a decline.
Yet the Angels arguably need Grilli to eventually become their closer. Joe Smith is really the only other proven late-inning option. With 37 strikeouts in 32.2 innings, he’s striking out batters at the highest rate of his career. But he’s also allowed 29 hits, so he’s not really the lockdown reliever teams prefer as their closer. Kevin Jepsen and rookie Mike Morin are other possibilities, but manager Mike Scioscia might opt for someone who’s shown he can handle the ninth inning.
However, Scioscia and Dipoto both said — and rightly so — that Grilli isn’t going to be handed the closer job in Anaheim. He has to earn it.
That, along with being traded in the first place (making the Angels the seventh team Grilli has pitched for in his 12-year MLB career), is quite a slide for a pitcher whose breakout success got him on the cover of Sports Illustrated (Jinx!), made him the face of the Pirates’ return to contention and earned him a spot on the National League All-Star team last season.
It’s hard out there for a closer, folks.