The Grapefruit League season is already a few days old, but the Pittsburgh Pirates have yet to deploy ace reliever Jason Grilli on the mound for an exhibition game.
According to the Pirates, this is all part of a plan to keep the 37-year-old all-star at full capacity for the duration of the 2014 regular season – and hopefully beyond. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Jenn Menendez reports the Bucs will wait until later this week to get Grilli pitching against major-league competition.
With another four weeks to go before the team heads north, a slight decrease in workload for Grilli shouldn’t have any ill effects on his sharpness once Opening Day rolls around. However, the caution with which the Pirates are treating Grilli does remind of the right-hander’s health issues last summer.
The fiery Grilli strained his right forearm July 22 at Washington, and while there were fears about structural damage, he rehabbed and returned to the Pirates in time for September’s push for the playoffs. Even when considering the injury, Grilli turned in arguably his most effective season out of three with Pittsburgh, allowing a stingy 1.06 baserunners per inning and posting strong strikeout (13.3 per nine) and walk (2.3 per nine) results.
Those sterling numbers reinforce how important Grilli’s continued late-career success is to the Pirates’ cause. Pittsburgh’s high-leverage duo of Grilli and Mark Melancon helped shorten the game to seven innings last season, making the late frames remarkably low-stress for a team trying to break a 20-year losing streak.
In an improved National League, the Bucs will likely need more shutdown relieving from the self-dubbed “Shark Tank” to replicate their 2013 successes. And considering Grilli’s age and his reliance on the arm-taxing slider for big strikeouts, the Pirates are wise to lay off the throttle in the spring in the hopes of getting a full season out of the 11-year MLB veteran.
For insurance, perhaps the Pirates can look to Stolmy Pimentel to augment the fireballing righties in the bullpen. The 24-year-old pitched two innings of scoreless ball in Pittsburgh’s 4-1 Sunday win over former ace A.J. Burnett and the Phillies.
While Pimentel can’t be sent to the minors without being exposed to waivers, he could slot into a relief role if he doesn’t make the starting rotation. Combining his repertoire with that of Melancon, Justin Wilson and Tony Watson would help the Pirates keep their level up in the late innings if Grilli misses any time.
Either way, having insurance is wise when a 37-year-old is one of the pivot points of your relief corps. The Pirates’ slow burn on “Grill Cheese” is all part of that policy, even if it doesn’t guarantee good health through the summer.