Jason Grilli (right… I think). Image via @GrilliCheese49.
Unless I’m totally hallucinating and making this up, I’m pretty sure that when Jason Grilli signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 2011, it was rumoured that he turned down more money from another club — and it sure looked at the time like that club was the Toronto Blue Jays.
I think there was another time when a thing like this happened, too. When Grilli went to the Braves in January of 2015, perhaps. I definitely recall writing about him more than your average aging middle-reliever, which… um… well…
The Jays have finally got their man! Or so it seems, with reports today that Grilli is being dealt north of the border. The Jays, according to a tweet from Robert Murray of Baseball Essential, will be paying the minimum of Grilli’s $3.5-million salary (he has a nifty option for next year, too!), and sending 21-year-old Sean Ratcliffe — a right-hander still in short-season ball who was their 18th round pick in 2013 and is Canadian, if that’s the kind of thing you’re interested in — the other way.
That’s… good, right? Adding a bullpen arm for no money and a far away piece that might one day resemble some kind of prospect seems to me like exactly the kind of thing that the Jays needed to do in order to stem the bleeding from their shitty bullpen. The question is… is Grilli ca. 2016 really a useful piece anymore?
The 2011 through 2015 versions of Grilli certainly would have been. He’s been a little bit “wow” bad this year, though, if my first glance at his numbers are any indication. But there are good signs there, too: Grilli has still produced big strikeout numbers (28.4% or 12.2 per nine innings), but his 16.1% walk rate (6.88 BB/9) is juuuuuust a little bit fucking alarming.
It’s also the thing that’s made the cost of acquiring him so cheap, one assumes.
If he goes back to normal — his career walk rate is 9.8%, but over the last three seasons it’s been more like 7.5% — then the Jays have likely found themselves a bargain. If he’s hurt or, at age 39-and-a-half, simply finished — which the lack of command and two mph drop in velocity might suggest — well… then they might have just added Drew Storen 2.0.
And, in case you hadn’t noticed, Storen has managed to maintain his strikeout rate, too, despite all the struggles.
But the bottom line is that the Jays did this — assuming it’s actually a real thing that’s happening — very cheaply, with a $3-million option for next year looking kinda tidy, too. If he isn’t terrible.
Why might he not be? Well, Grilli missed half of last season with an Achilles injury, and so maybe some of the awfulness this year can be largely attributed to rust. And if you look at his velocity chart at FanGraphs and squint hard enough, you see it generally trending in the right direction.
But it’s hard to know yet what to make of him — which, again, probably worked to the Jays’ advantage, as the Barves aren’t exactly competing for a pennant this year, and likely wanted to cash this chip in now, rather than wait for it to devalue itself.
In 2016 so far he’s been an extreme flyball pitcher — slotted, funnily enough, right between the Red Sox’ Craig Kimbrel and Koji Uehara on the leaderboard for relievers, with 58% of the balls in play he’s allowed having gone into the air. That’s not typical for him over his career, though he’s never been much of a ground ball guy — especially over the past five seasons. Still, his league-low ground ball rate of just 18% is… something. But because he can rear back and strike guys out, that’s maybe not too big of a concern. And the rate at which opponents have generated hard contact off him is firmly within the realm of average among relievers (his rate is the 82nd highest of 172 to have pitched this year), so the walks would seem to be the biggest concern — at least until the balls start flying out of the Rogers Centre at a greater rate than his current 8% HR/FB.
Thirteen walks over 17 innings is obviously not great. Though if you go back to May 7th, he’s only issued four over his last eight innings. So… improvement!
Of course, if you go back one game farther, he’s allowed five over his last nine innings, and maybe isn’t as out of the woods as that other arbitrary endpoint suggests.
Still, if he does find his way out of the woods (and he had some of the best success of his career throwing to Russell Martin in Pittsburgh, let’s not forget), he’s certainly an upgrade on most of the non-Osuna arms the Jays are currently running out there. Hell, if he and Storen maybe figure it out, and Cecil comes back healthy, you could be looking at a bullpen that’s suddenly pretty damn strong! Shit, if it was just last year things would look pretty good for the Jays’ bullpen right about now, crazy as that is to think about.
Unfortunately, today, right now, a good-looking bullpen requires quite a bit of wishful thinking — not unlike this Grilli acquisition. But I’ll take some relatively cheap wishful thinking at this point, won’t you? At least it isn’t going to prevent them from doing anything else they want to do on the trade market — or the relief market, for that matter.
So unless you’re Ryan Tepera, or unless you were expecting some kind of relief ace to show up right away (instead of a guy who might still take a little time to round into form — assuming he ever does), there’s really not a whole lot to dislike about this one.