Forget trying to finish over .500 for the first time since 1992—the Pittsburgh Pirates are expected to get into baseball’s postseason this year. Truthfully, the Pirates’ goal isn’t even to get in as a Wild Card as stated by general manager Neal Huntington. The hope is that they can win the National League’s Central Division for the first time since, well, ever. The last time that Pittsburgh reached the playoffs, they were still members of the NL East.
Winning baseball has returned to Pittsburgh and the Pirates not only have a sizable lead in the Wild Card standings, but sit only 2.5 games out of first place in the Division behind the St. Louis Cardinals. Nearly everything has gone right for baseball’s perennial losers.
The Pirates, however, were dealt a significant blow earlier this week when All-Star closer Jason Grilli suffered a forearm strain and promptly landed on the 15-day disabled list. The true severity of the injury is still fairly unknown, but it’s conceivable that Grilli could be out longer than that … even significantly longer.
The closer has been having a career year and is the anchor of Pittsburgh’s excellent bullpen. He has a league-high 30 saves with a 2.34 ERA and has been one of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball. His loss is a big one for Pittsburgh. The big question is how will this affect the Bucs at the trade deadline?
The key with the Grilli situation is likely the length of time he’ll be sidelined. If it’s significantly longer than the 15-day DL stint, you can expect the Pirates to do all they can to make a move. The last thing Pittsburgh wants is to give games away late because they’re missing their closer. To make the playoffs as a Wild Card team, the Pirates could probably stand pat and still get into the postseason. If they want to win the division, though, a trade would help strengthen the bullpen and give them a more legitimate shot at catching the Cards.
Pittsburgh may want another reliever, but keep in mind that they have other pressing needs as well. As previously mentioned, the club’s biggest one is in right field where the team is playing a combination of mostly Jose Tabata and Travis Snider. Both are serviceable, but neither brings much power (the two have combined for only five home runs in 2013) or consistency to the position. Pittsburgh has also debated adding another starter for depth in its rotation.
Despite those needs, it sounds as if the Pirates are already at least kicking the tires on a potential deal for a reliever. Pittsburgh was one of the teams with a scout in attendance for former Giants’ closer Brian Wilson’s workout on Wednesday. Formerly a dominant closer, he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012 and is a free agent. With that news, you can expect they’ll also be following the situation of other relievers believed to be available including John Axford and former Pirate Mike Gonzalez from the Brewers’ highly-desired stable, Kevin Gregg, and the like.
Sticking with the current players could be the direction Pittsburgh goes. Setup man Mark Melancon is currently filling the role of closer. Melancon is having a monster season himself and has been nearly unhittable with an incredible 0.97 ERA. The real problem is that the Pirates’ depth is compromised. With Melancon moving to the ninth inning, Pittsburgh is forced to use a different reliever to take on his former role in the eighth. That move obviously weakens the rest of the bullpen. Vic Black was recalled from Triple-A to help fill the void, but he is only a rookie and just pitching in his first big league ball games this season. Whether or not he can be as dominant in the majors as he was in Triple-A this year (2.31 ERA with 15 saves) is very much in question.
At this stage, it’s too early to tell what exactly Pittsburgh will do. The Pirates will certainly consider adding a reliever, but might not act until a better prognosis on Grilli is determined.
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