Bucs, Angels each trade struggling closers
PITTSBURGH – “Grilled Cheese” is off the menu for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Jason Grilli, who embraced that nickname as the team’s closer, was traded to the Los Angeles Angels on Friday for reliever Ernesto Frieri.
The deal, announced less than an hour before the Pirates’ game against the New York Mets, swaps one struggling right-handed closer for another.
Grilli had recently been removed from that role with the Pirates, as Frieri had been earlier by the Angels.
Frieri, who is expected to report to the Pirates in time for today’s 4:05 p.m. game, comes with an 0-3 record, 11 saves and a 6.39 earned run average.
“He’s going through a rough stretch right now, but there are some things that we like,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “We feel like we’ve had some success with guys like this in the past.”
The Pirates plan to use Frieri in middle inning situations while pitching coach Ray Searage works with him. Huntington likens it to the situation the team had when Joel Hanrahan came over from Washington during the 2009 season. Hanrahan had been pitching poorly with the Nationals, but the Pirates helped him improve.
In 2010, he was one of the team’s primary set-up relievers, and he followed that with seasons in which he saved 40 and 36 games.
Frieri is 28 and just hit his first season of arbitration eligibility. Grilli is 37 and his contract expires at the end of the season. He was unlikely to return in 2015.
Huntington said the ages of the players involved played a role but wasn’t the main factor in dealing for Frieri, a pitcher the Pirates have been watching for a while.
“(He is) a guy who has success as a closer at the big league level, that has quality stuff, that has a good strikeout rate,” Huntington said. “Not the ground ball guy that we typically look to acquire, but good soft contact and again there are indicators there that he can continue to do that. We believe we can get back on the right track.”
The Pirates have had success in turning around some pitchers whose careers seem to have stalled. They certainly did that with Grilli, who was pitching at the AAA level for Philadelphia when they acquired him as a minor league free agent in 2011.
Grilli had 33 saves for the Pirates last season and made the All-Star team. But last July he sustained a forearm injury and wasn’t as consistently effective when he returned.
This season he missed time with an oblique strain and had been giving up home runs, which led to his demotion from the closer spot. He had blown four saves in 15 opportunities. The Pirates maintain that Grilli had no significant loss in velocity, but his pitches were elevated.
“The oblique strain threw him off track,” Huntington said. “He got away from being as aggressive as he has been when he’s been successful, when he pitched as though he had nothing to lose. He wasn’t quite as sharp. A few mistakes got hit hard. Things that went his way in the past didn’t go his way.”
While the Pirates believe they can help Frieri, they gave up on Grilli.
“We also thought we could get Jason back on track, but as we looked more at the future, we felt this was the right move,” Huntington said.
He said the trade took Grilli by surprise, and that he was emotional at receiving the news.
“He was shaken up,” Huntington said. “This is the hard part of the game, the human element.”
Huntington said some general discussions with the Angels led to a trade he didn’t expect to make.
“It came together in a hurry,” he said. “Like the Brian Morris situation, it was not somebody that we were actively shopping. We felt like it was a positive outcome for us.”
Frieri Tweeted, “I’m excited about being a Bucco!”
In 2013 Frieri established or tied career highs in saves (37), innings pitched (68.2), games (67) and strikeouts (98).
His 98 strikeouts ranked third among American League relievers while his .155 batting average against (22-for-142) vs. left-handed hitters ranked second in the junior circuit among relievers.
Root TV cameras caught Grilli exiting PNC Park and stopping in the bullpen on his way to the players’ underground garage. He waved to teammates as he disappeared through the door.
“He has a chance to be a classic change of scenery guy,” Huntington said. “We think we’re going to look up in September and October and see Jason having a nice run with the Angels, and Ernesto will have a nice run with us.”