The Grilli question … And are the Pirates middle class?


PNC PARK – Pirates manager Clint Hurdle often says “feelings aren’t facts.”


The Pirates have strong feelings of loyalty when it comes to Jason Grilli. In the first half of the season, Grilli was the best closer in the game. He’s been a good teammate and was really the face of the team’s first half success – the face of the bullpen.


But the unfortunate facts are Grilli has not looked like his pre-injury self since returning.


His fastball velocity has been down since returning. It sat at 91 mph on Friday night. Grilli’s fastball is averaging 93.5 mph this season.


His slider is inconsistent. While Grilli began the seventh by generating two strikeouts with the pitch Friday, he walked Luis Valbuena with a slider and Anthony Rizzo followed by homering on a flat slider.


Grilli has only made four appearances since returning from the DL. It’s understandable that he’s not immediately dominant. But time is not on his side to get right.


Hurdle thinks Grilli is “close.” Grilli thinks he is close. And there’s no doubt the Pirates’ best bullpen situation is when a 100 percent Grilli takes the ninth-inning and allows Mark Melancon to be a high-leverage setup arm.


But how long can the Pirates wait for Grilli to get right?


There’s only two weeks in the regular season. And while Hurdle said Grilli needs work to get right, allowing him to get work against Rizzo – who is batting .178 against left-handed pitching – cost the Pirates a critical game.


The Pirates can’t be experimenting with bullpen roles in October. They are better with Grilli in the ninth. But they are running out of time – and margin for error – to get him right and move Melancon out of the end-game role.




I know at least one of the faithful reader of this blog has distaste for my labeling of the Pirates as a “small-market’ team.


The truth is the Pirates have been a small market team for at least the last several decades. After all, small-market realities were one salient reason the Pirates broke up their last winning team. It’s one reason why Barry Bonds left for the bay.


And the painful truth of the matter is the Pirates will never have the wherewithal to match the top spenders no matter how much success they have. It’s simply a matter of population, eyeballs on televisions, etc.

But fear not, there is some upward mobility possible in baseball and I wonder if it will soon be possible to place the Pirates among baseball’s middle class.


Consider this information released from Major League Baseball on Thursday:


*The Pirates’ merchandise sales are up 55 percent this season. That’s an amazing number. I was in Dick’s sporing goods in Mt. Lebo the other day and there was a ton of Pirates merchandise by the registers. Not Steelers gear. It’s September.


*The Pirates’ local television ratings are up 15 percent and their average rating (7.6) ranks third in major league baseball.


*Pirates’ attendance is up 5 percent and the club is on pace to draw 2.3 million fans to PNC Park, second most in park history. The attendance ranks 19th in baseball, but the Pirates have had a strong attendance surge in the second half after disappointing attendance to begin the season. Pirates president Frank Coonelly said the club is projecting 2.5 million in attendance next season. That would be a PNC Park record.


The Pirates are having, say, 15 percent growth. If they were an emerging economy, that would be quite a number. A sustainable number?


Now it’s true the Pirates are locked into one of the worst local cable deals for the next six years, which is a major handicap.  It’s true merchandise sales will not increase by 55 percent every year.


But what we’ve seen this year is if the Pirates build it. Build a winner. Fans will come. And they will buy stuff. (The park and its surroundings have enjoyed something akin to a college football atmosphere in the second half of the season.) If the Pirates continue to win, they’ll be able to enjoy a much better TV contract within the decade.


Why is all this significant?


It’s about buying power of course. Most owners won’t operate from deficits. The Pirates will never be competing for top free agent targets but being middle class better allows the club to keep its own talent, fill holes with significant free agents, and spend liberally when required in the amateur markets.


Is it sustainable?


It is … if the Pirates win. The Pittsburgh community has shown it will support a winner. Pittsburgh is not a transient market which means there is much better brand loyalty here than, say, in the Florida or Atlanta pro sports markets. Pound-for-pound, per capita-for-per capita Pittsburgh is  one of the better pro sports towns in the country. Just look at the local market NHL ratings, even the NBA finals ratings for a city that doesn’t have an NBA team.


The Pirates can shed the “small market” label if, IF, they keep winning. Upward mobility requires sustained success.


– TS