On June 27, 2014, former Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington made a trade that played a large role in the Pirates not winning the National League Central that season
The 2013 season was a magical one for the Pittsburgh Pirates. After finishing with a losing record and missing the postseason in each of the previous 20 seasons, the Bucs went on to win 94 games and reach in the postseason in 2013.
A big reason the Pittsburgh Pirates were a postseason team in 2013 was their bullpen. One of the leaders of their bullpen was All-Star closer Jason Grilli. However, after an excellent 2013 season Grilli struggled in 2014.
Entering play on June 27, Grilli owned a 4.87 ERA and a 5.39 FIP in 20.1 innings of work. He had allowed four home runs (1.77 HR/9) and was walking 11.8% of batters faced. These struggles led to Grilli being removed from his role as the team’s closer, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, probably prematurely, giving up on him.
With Grilli struggling, Neal Huntington and the Pittsburgh Pirates traded him for another struggling ex-closer. In a trade that caught a lot of people, Grilli included, off guard, the Pirates sent him to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in exchange for former Halos closer Ernesto Frieri.
In 2013, Frieri posted a 3.80 ERA and a 3.72 FIP in 68.2 innings for the Angels. This included an outstanding 33.6% strikeout rate, which helped offset a high walk rate of 10.3%. The year prior, he posted a 2.32 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 11.2% walk rate, and a 36.4% strikeout rate in 66 innings of work for the Angels and San Diego Padres.
So while Frieri was struggling, there was reason to believe he could turn things around. Especially since this trade was made at a time when turning struggling pitchers around was what the Pittsburgh Pirates were known for.
Unfortunately, this is not what happened.
With the Pirates, Frieri was nothing short of awful. In just 10.2 innings of work he allowed 14 hits, three home runs, walked five batters, and struck out just 10. All of this came out to a 10.13 ERA and a 6.60 FIP. Frieri was designated for assignment on August 8, and then released one month later on September 6.
Frieri’s tenure with the Pittsburgh Pirates may not have been long, but it was long enough to be a disaster. In his 42 days as a Pirate, he cost the team the 2014 National League Central division crown. Finishing second in the division that season sent the Bcus to the NL Wild Card Game where they ran into the Madison Bumgarner buzz saw.
How did he cause so much damage in so few innings? Well, let me explain.
Frieri’s first step toward costing the Pirates the division came on July 8. In a game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Frieri took the mound in the bottom of the 9th with the game tied at 4. He would proceed to allow a meatball to Kolten Wong that the long time Pirate killer launched for a walk off home run. This would prove to be a vital victory for the eventual NL Central champion Cardinals.
Frieri’s biggest blow to the Pirates, however, would occur in Arizona.
On August 1, the Pirates were playing the Arizona Diamondbacks. With the Bucs leading 9-4 in the bottom of the 9th inning, Frieri took the mound looking to close the game out. While he did that, he also plunked Diamondbacks superstar Paul Goldschmidt on the wrist as well. This HBP, a result of nothing more that Frieri’s awful control, broke Goldschmidt’s wrist and angered the Diamondbacks.
The following night, in extremely dirty fashion, the Diamondbacks got their revenge when they hit Andrew McCutchen on purpose. McCutchen was clearly in pain but took his base. The following day, McCutchen would grimace on a swing that went for a sacrifice fly. It would then be revealed that McCutchen had a fracture rib and he would end up on the disabled list.
While McCutchen made an incredible return from the fractured rib, it undoubtedly cost the Pirates. The team finished 2 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central that season. If not for McCutchen’s injury, especially when you take into account his 2014 season was one of the best in Pirate history, odds are the Pirates would have picked up those two extra wins they needed. And if not for Frieri throwing a meat ball to Wong on July 8, they may have only needed one extra win.
After the trade, got back on track. He posted a 3.48 ERA, 2.15 FIP, 7.0% walk rate, and a 25.4% strikeout rate with the Angels. He then put together a 2.94 ERA, 2.12 FIP season for the Atlanta Braves in 2015. Seeing Grilli return to his 2013 form made that trade sting even worse for the Pirates and their fans.
Did the Pittsburgh Pirates give up too quickly on Grilli? The answer to that is a resounding yes. However, trading him was not the issue. Some times players need a change of scenery and Grilli appeared to be one of those players. The issue is that they traded him for Frieri. Between poor results on the mound and bad control that led to McCutchen getting thrown at and injured, Frieri, maybe more than any other player in baseball, led to the Pirates not winning the NL Central in 2014.