Pittsburgh Pirates: Can Mark Melancon Lock Down Closer Role?


There is the old adage in sports that you don’t lose your job due to injury.

That being said, there have been plenty of exceptions to that rule in the past, and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ closer gig could turn out to be one of those.

Apr 6, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Mark Melancon (35) pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the eighth inning at PNC Park. The Pirates won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With current closer Jason Grilli on the 15-day disabled list, set up man Mark Melancon has the opportunity to make a statement closing out games, if the Pirates ever play again.

But if Melancon is dominant in Grilli’s absence, should Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle automatically hand the ball back to Grilli in the ninth inning upon his return?

That answer is no.

There’s no denying the fact that Grilli was dominant a season ago when he saved 33 of 35 games with a 2.70 ERA in 50 innings pitched.

Those numbers would have been more impressive if it weren’t for a lengthy stay on the DL.

Meanwhile, Melancon was even more dominant a season ago, posting a 1.39 ERA in 71.0 innings pitched. That included a perfect 9 for 9 in save opportunities while Grilli was out of action.

If you remember, Grilli didn’t automatically get the closer’s gig back when he returned to action in 2013. Now he won’t be out nearly as long this time around, but the situation could be the same.

Grilli has allowed four earned runs in eight innings of work, already costing the Pirates three games. While in a perfect world, his struggles could be due to the injury and he will come back good as new, there are no guarantees.

Could age finally be catching up with Grilli?

He is 37 and in terms of major league closers not named Mariano Rivera, he might as well be a dinosaur, as typically there aren’t many pitchers Grilli’s age finishing games.

Melancon has allowed only two earned runs in 12.0 innings pitched in 2014 while striking out nine. He’s also 29 and in the prime of his career. Melancon has also shown that he can get the job done in the past.

If, and it’s a big if, Melancon goes on a streak in the next week and a half during which he’s closing out games regularly, it presents Hurdle with a problem. Of course, having two guys that can close out games is a good problem to have, but Hurdle has to have the right guys in the right roles.

For the Pirates to have success, their bullpen must be a weapon.

It still can be. It’s only May.

For Grilli it’s all about velocity and location. The good news is the velocity has pretty much been there. The bad news is that the location hasn’t. That is fixable. It would be more of a concern if Grilli had lost four or five miles per hour off his fastball.

But Melancon can make this a difficult decision for Hurdle. If Melancon isn’t dominant, well there won’t be much of a decision to make.

But if he closes out four or five games with ease, Hurdle is going to have to consider leaving him in the ninth-inning role. Sometimes all a player needs is an opportunity to kick down the door.

Melancon has his. We will see what he does with it.