Last week, Jason Grilli and Ernesto Frieri were their respective teams’ closers. However, after blowing saves last Thursday (Frieri’s third, Grilli’s fourth), both were effectively demoted from that role, Grilli explicitly, Frieri somewhat less so.
Now, barely a week later, they have been traded for one another. That’s a rather dramatic and sudden fall from grace, particularly for Grilli, who, just a year ago, was an All-Star and the veteran leader of the Pirates’ “Shark Tank” bullpen, a key component of Pittsburgh’s first winning baseball team in twenty years.
It was just nine months ago that Grilli recorded the Pirates’ first postseason save since Roger Mason saved Game 5 of the 1991 National League Championship Series, but his 2014 season has been a disaster right from the start. He blew his first save chance in the second game of the season and had blown three of seven chances when he hit the disabled list with a left oblique strain at the end of April.
He appeared to be back to his 2013 form upon his return a month later, but by mid-June he was struggling again. Grilli gave up runs in three of his last four appearances as the Pirates’ closer, allowing four runs in 2 2/3 innings in those four games in addition to allowing his only two inherited runners of the season to score. He took a loss and blew yet another save in his last two appearances before the Pirates made Mark Melancon, who converted ten of twelve save chances while Grilli was on the disabled list, their closer.
Grilli has made two more appearances since then, both with the Pirates trailing in the eighth inning. In the second of those, he turned a 3-0 deficit into a 5-0 deficit and failed to complete the inning.
Frieri’s journey from heralded closer to discarded set-up man was more gradual. Frieri didn’t allow a run, inherited or otherwise, in his fist 26 appearances for the Angels after being acquired from the Padres for Alexi Amarista and Donn Roach in early May 2012, ascending to the role of closer over the course of that streak. The bloom was off the rose last year, however, as Frieri hit a rough patch in late July and briefly lost the closers job in August.
This year, Frieri gave up two home runs in his first appearance in April and blew two of his first four save opportunities. His saves didn’t outnumber his home runs allowed until the end of May, and things went off the rails in the last two weeks. In his final five appearances for the Angels, Frieri allowed nine runs in a total of three innings, not counting the three inherited runners who scored when he gave up a walk-off grand slam to Nick Swisher last Thursday with a 3-1 lead and two outs in the bottom of the tenth inning. That was Frieri’s last save opportunity for the Angels, and when he was called in to finish off a 6-1 win in the ninth inning Thursday night, he, in an echo of Grilli’s last Pirates appearance, gave up three runs and was unable to finish the inning.
Given all of that, this is a classic change-of-scenery trade. Both pitchers have had success in high-profile roles in the past. Both have been unequivocally lousy this season. Both teams hope that a change of environment and coaching can perhaps break their new right-handed reliever out of his funk.
The swap is also arguably the first of this year’s trading-deadine season as the age and contract status of the two pitchers corresponds to the contention status of their new clubs. Grilli, a 37-year-old veteran in the final year of a two-year contract, joins the an Angels team that currently boasts the third-best record in the American League, a 3 1/2-game lead over the third-place team in the AL wild-card race, has improved their record in each successive month of the current season, and is looking to win its seventh straight game Friday night in Kansas City.
Frieri, a 28-year-old with two arbitration years remaining before his free agency after the 2016 season, joins a Pirates team that, entering Friday night’s action, was just one game over .500, in fourth place in its division, and in fifth place in the NL wild-card hunt.
That said, the Pirates, like the Angels, have only improved as the season has worn on. From May 21 through Thursday, Pittsburgh has gone 22-13 (.629), including wins in five of their last six games heading into Friday night’s game against the Mets. The in-season additions of first baseman Ike Davis and rookie right fielder Gregory Polanco have contributed to that improvement, and the Pirates clearly hope that both the switch from Grilli to Melancon at closer and Friday night’s swap of Grilli for Frieri will represent further improvements as they entered Friday night’s action just 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot.
Of the two pitchers, Frieri is younger, throws harder, and, contrary to his own history, has shown better control thus far this year. In fact, Frieri’s walk and strikeout rates (11.0 K/9, 2.6 BB/9) have been excellent this season, both superior to Grilli’s (9.3 K/9, down from more than 13 per nine each of the last two seasons, and 4.9 BB/9).
Both pitchers have given up an excess of home runs this year, with Frieri’s gopheritis having been far more acute. However, Frieri has the advantage of moving out of the designated hitter league and into a ballpark even less friendly to home run hitters than Angel Stadium. As a challenge trade, the swap favors Pittsburgh in practically every way (the money, for what it’s worth, is almost even, Grilli is making $4 million this year, Frieri $3.8 million), but as a way to rid both teams of a pitcher who was actively detracting from their success this season, it should serve its purpose for both.