SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – Relievers are the most volatile players in the game. I believe it was the Cleveland Indians’ front office conducted a study a few years back that revealed relievers’ year-to-year performance varied more than any other position in the game.
There are a number of theories as to why this is true: relievers pitch fewer innings than starters, so their numbers are subject to the volatility inherent in smaller sample sizes; relief pitchers are often more max-effort type guys, which perhaps makes them more injury prone; relief pitchers often lack a third pitch or repeatable delivery, making them subject to decline.
This is why some GMs – most famously the A’s Bill Beane – have often traded closers at their peak value. The A’s traded Andrew Bailey to Boston for Josh Reddick before the 2012 season, and with Bailey’s subsequent injury struggles it’s been a clear win for Beane.
(Sell or hold Grilled Cheese?)
The Pirates traded former closer Joel Hanrahan to Boston this offseason. It looks like Boston was burned again as the return for Pittsburgh included Mark Melancon, who has been great in the setup role this season, and Hanrahan was placed on the 60-day disabled list with an elbow issue this week. Clint Hurdle had key input in this trade. While Melancon struggled at times in the AL East, Hurdle loved what he saw from Melancon when he was with Houston in 2011.
The Red Sox have been burnt twice in two years in trading for closers. It shows the danger in acquiring closers, and assuming your current close will continue to dominant.
Lesson No. 1: always trade with the Red Sox
Lesson No. 2: always trade closers at peak value …. right?
If the Pirates fall out of contention this summer, or perhaps this winter, recent history suggests they should explore selling high on closer Jason Grilli, who despite last night’s hiccup, has been nearly perfect this season and one of the game’s best closers.
But there are always exceptions. You wouldn’t want to have sold high on Mariano Rivera. The rule doesn’t always apply across the board. Some relievers are just different animals, they are more durable, more effective for whatever reason. And I think Grilli might be a guy worth hanging onto despite what history suggests regarding closers.
For starters, he’s relatively cheap: he’s signed through next year, when he’s due $4.25 million.
But more important is this: Grilli continues to get better. In his three years with the Pirates, Grilli’s K/9, BB/9 and fastball velocity have all improved, despite being in his mid 30s.
k/9 bb/9 fb velocity
2011 10.2 4.1 92.4
2012 13.8 3.8 93.6
2013 14.4 2.5 93.9
If the Pirates trade Grilli, finding someone to replicate those rates would be nearly impossible.
Moreover, after dealing with injury issues early in his career, Grilli has become durable. He hasn’t missed any time since March of 2010 when he had surgery on his quad and missed 10 days.
Like AJ Burnett, Jason Grilli is aging well, he’s becoming more effective, he’s become one of the best closers in baseball.
The bullpen has been a strength for the Pirates and to try and sell high on another closer would just open up a hole in the late-game bullpen situation. If the Pirates are going to contend this summer of in 2014, a strong bullpen will have to be part of the equation.
(Of course this question is dependent upon the return, and we’re not privy to such internal discussions. But if Rangers offer, say, Jurickson Profar for anyone on the roster you immediately say yes. But that’s not going to happen)
The Pirates made the right move in selling Hanrahan. But the right move with Grilli might be simply to hold.
NEVER GIVE UP ON A LEFTY (UNLESS IT’S JONATHAN SANCHEZ)
Scott Kazmir and Francisco Liriano looked like the best thing since the creation of Chipotle back in 2007, two lefties with dominant stuff who appeared to be future American League aces.
Then the injuries came.
This offseason both were free agents and there was little interest, except rom me, as I’ve carried the Liriano flag with more vigor than any other person aside from his agent so far as I can tell.
The Indians signed Kazmir to a cheap, incentive-laden deal and the Pirates did the same with Liriano.
Yesterday, Kazmir looked like the 2007 Scott Kazmir. The slider was sharp, his fastball touched 95 mph in the sixth inning and he struck out 10 Athletics.
Liriano will make his first start tomorrow after showing improved command in his rehab outings. Liriano credits the improvement to a more over-hand delivery. Is this sustainable? We’ll soon find out. He still has bat-missing stuff.
(I also think Liriano has a chance to transition very well to the National League, where fewer batters have seen him, and where the pitcher bats, diluting the strength of lineups.)
We’ll see Saturday if the Pirates might have found a free agent bargain. But whatever happens, I still think it was as shrewd signing. Kazmir and Liriano, and, yes, Jonathan Sanchez, are lottery tickets worth buying and scratching off. These are the gamble small market teams must seek, and hit on, in free agency. This is where the value is.
Sometimes a team will take a flier and lose, like on Sanchez, who simply isn’t physically capable of doing what he did with the Giants a few years back. But as Kazmir demonstrated on Thursday, sometimes a team can capture lefty lightning in a bottle.
APPEL GOES NO. 1 IN BASEBALL AMERICA’s FIRST MOCK DRAFT
Stanford ace Mark Appel has been even more dominant than he was last spring and he’s vaulted to No. 1 in Baseball America’s first mock draft
It begs the question whether the Pirates should have had a one-man draft last spring. Imagine a system with Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Appel?
Here’s BA’s projection for the Pirates two first-round pick:
PROJECTED PICK: COLIN MORAN.
9. PIRATES: Pittsburgh added this pick after failing to sign Appel at No. 8 last year, and it would get the No. 10 selection in 2014 if it can’t close a deal again. The Pirates were on Moran more than most teams in high school, and he’d eventually allow Pedro Alvarez to shift across the diamond to first base. Ball and McGuire also get mentioned here.
PROJECTED PICK: SEAN MANAEA.
14. PIRATES: A year ago, Pittsburgh ditched a predraft deal with David Dahl and gambled the No. 8 choice on Appel when he unexpectedly fell. Could they do the same with another Boras Corp. college pitcher in Manaea, a potential No. 1 overall pick before his stuff backed up? No team has two picks as high as the Pirates do, and not signing Manaea wouldn’t sting as much as missing out on Appel did in 2012. Pittsburgh also could grab Ball at No. 9 and get a college bat such as Renfroe or Notre Dame third baseman Eric Jagielo here. California high school first baseman Dominic Smith is a gifted hitter, too.