Transaction analysis: is the Grilli trade the new Hanrahan trade?


SOUTH HILLS – Some shocking news came down an hour before first pitch tonight as the Pirates traded their melt-down-prone reliever Jason Grilli for the Angles’ melt-down-prone reliever Ernesto Frieri. At first glance it appears this is a classic change-of-scenery, we’ll-give-you-our-problem-for-your-problem trade. But this trade is a clear win for the Pirates.

For starters, Grilli possesses almost no upside. He’s 37 years old and a free agent to be.

Frieri is 28 and has two years of club control remaining. He’s earning a similar salary to Grill this season ($3.8 million) in his first year of arbitration. Moreover, Frieri’s strikeout rate (11 per nine) and walk rates (2.6 per nine) are very good and superior to that of Grilli. He has a 94 mph fastball. By keeping him away from save situations the Pirates might be able to keep down future arbitration earnings.

Both pitcher’s have ugly ERAs, that’s true. But the Pirates are again trusting the magical powers of Fielding Independent Pitching, FIP. In short, FIP, unlike ERA, takes into account what pitchers control: strikeouts and walks and home runs and removes defensive play. Frieri, like AJ Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon acquired before him, has a FIP that suggests he hasn’t pitched as poorly as his ERA.

Last offseason the Pirates traded a pitcher whose FIP suggested he was over-achieving (Joel Hanrahan) for a pitcher, Melancon, whose FIP suggested he was under-achieving. The trade was a clear win for the Pirates.

Melancon’s 2012 ERA (6.20) and FIP (4.58) and HR rate (22 percent).

Frieri’s 2014 ERA (6.39) FIP (4.97) and HR rate (21 percent).

Frieri’s a good bet to improve simply because his HR/FB ratio is unlikely to remain that high. Frieri’s biggest problem is he is an extreme flyball pitcher, like Grilli. Still, he misses a ton of bats and limits walks.

Here’s what Neal Huntington had to say:

“I think we caught (Grilli) off guard. He was planning on working through his challenges here as we were and then this came together. We decided to make a move. He was shaken up. This is the tough part of it. The human element part.”

“Ernesto is a guy we have pursued for a couple of years and haven’t been able to get him. He’s been going through a rough stretch but there’s a lot of things our scouts like, that our analysts like. We feel like we’ve had some success with guys like this in the past. Change of leagues, change of scenery.”

“(Frieri) comes with years of control. We have to get him back on track, and if we do that that’s one of the potential upside.”

“(Frieri) has got a good strikeout rate. There are indicators there that indicate he can (improve)….  and getting him around our staff, the change of scenery part of it.”

Huntington said he expected Melancon to continue to close but noted Frieri has done it.

“Obviously Ernesto has done it in the past. We are very confident with Mark and Tony at the back end. It gives Clint another high-leverage option that may pitch in the middle innings.”

Huntington has to be giddy. This is a nothing-to-lose trade, only upside to be gained. It might not work out, but there’s nothing to lose.