COMMENTARY | Jason Grilli showed fans last year he's capable of fanning batters at an incredible clip. He struck out an average of 13 batters per nine innings and recorded a 2.91 ERA in 58 2/3 innings pitched, only one fewer inning than closer Joel Hanrahan.
Grilli owned the eighth inning while serving as the setup man for Hanrahan, who the Pirates traded in the offseason to Boston. While the closer's job is now his to lose, the 36-year-old Grilli knows he's about to embark on a career-defining season, perhaps the most important in his tumultuous career.
He has big shoes to fill: Hanrahan racked up 82 saves during his four-year tenure in Pittsburgh, including 36 last year and 40 in 2011.
The new closer appears to be embracing the challenge and has the full confidence of both manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage. Even Hanrahan gave media interviews over the winter praising Grilli and reassuring fans that he's fit for the job.
But none of that will matter in April when Grilli steps out on the mound for the first time as the Pittsburgh Pirates' closer. Should fans be concerned?
Where he came from
Grilli is the consummate journeyman. Making his major-league debut with the Florida Marlins in 2000 at the age of 23, Grilli soon began a trend of bouncing from team to team in between the majors and minors. He's been a part of nine major-league organizations during that time and also has played for 11 different minor-league organizations.
He's pitched nearly twice as many innings in the minors (885.2) as he has in the majors (448) during his career, been traded and released numerous times, and underwent several major medical procedures like Tommy John surgery and a knee reconstruction in 2010.
His most extensive major-league action came during a four-season stint with the Detroit Tigers from 2005 to 2008, where he compiled a 4.31 ERA in 171 innings pitched. If he finishes this season with the Pirates, it will be his third with the team, which will rank as his second longest tenure with any team.
Grilli's litany of injuries combined with his age might have signaled the end of a career for other pitchers. But Grilli reemerged in 2011 when the Pirates signed him to a minor-league contract after his release from the Philadelphia Phillies organization.
What followed was a season and a half of baseball the completely rejuvenated his career.
Where he is now
Grilli has recorded two consecutive seasons with a sub-3.00 earned run average with the Pirates, including a 2.48 ERA in 32 2/3 innings pitched in 2011. That performance elevated him to the primary setup man for Hanrahan last season, and Grilli didn't disappoint. He struck out 90 hitters in 58 2/3 innings, finishing with a 2.91 ERA in 64 appearances.
His quality work didn't go unnoticed. He is set to make $2.75 million this year and $4 million next year. The front office clearly thinks Grilli has enough talent and stamina left to succeed as the team's closer, even if he will be one of the oldest ninth-inning men in the game. He's had a relatively small sample size on which to judge his time with the Pirates, so many fans have begged a question.
Can he replace Hanrahan?
That depends on whether he can stay healthy. Durability is a concern with Grilli, who's never pitched more than 80 innings in a season. He set a career high in 2007 when he pitched 79 2/3 innings and recorded a 4.74 ERA for Detroit. He only pitched one fewer inning last year than Hanrahan. However, Grilli only tossed 32 innings in 2011, didn't pitch at all in the majors in 2010, and threw only 26 innings in 2009.
He can expect a much heavier workload as the Pirates' closer. Hanrahan tossed nearly 70 innings in both 2010 and 2011 at a time when Grilli was rarely toeing the mound. Maybe that limited action works in his favor in terms of saving his arm.
But no amount of rest is going to add significant velocity to Grilli's fastball, which routinely tops out in the low-90s. He uses a slider and will occasionally mix in a changeup, which isn't nearly as effective as his other pitches.
There's no doubt that Grilli has some huge cleats to fill in terms of replacing Hanrahan. But he can't and shouldn't try to be just like Hanrahan. If he can recreate the success that led him to a two-year contract extension and a penciled-in role as closer, he should be able to finish his career on a high note.
Regardless, fans and management alike should keep their fingers crossed for Grilli. The bullpen below him is full of young but largely raw talent. For now, the second-in-line for the job appears to be Mark Melancon, a 27-year-old reliever who recorded 20 saves for the Houston Astros in 2011. However, Melancon pitched to a 6.20 ERA in 41 appearances last year for Boston. He came to Pittsburgh in the trade for Hanrahan.
Let's hope for now the Pirates won't have to look any deeper than Grilli as the season progresses.
Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for MLB.com on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.
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