The Phillies are playing the Pirates, which means it is time to talk about Jason Grilli again. Ruben Frank covers most of the nuts and bolts in his solid profile over on CSNPhilly.com. So why don't we deal with the elephant in the room: how much blame should the Phillies accept for letting him get away?
Any suggestion they should have predicted the Grilli's to the rank of elite closer is the product of way too much hindsight to take seriously. At the same time, any suggestion that fans do not have a right to grumble about the move ignores the reality of the situation. Leading up to the day when he opted out of his minor league contract to sign with the Phillies in late July of 2011, I received a few emails and Tweets from people who noticed Grilli's dominant numbers at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. They are the type of emails and Tweets I receive often whenever the stat sheet reflects well on a player: Scott Mathieson, Tyler Cloyd, Matt Rizzotti, etc. I remember very clearly responding to one of those emails or Tweets thusly: he's a 34-year-old who hasn't pitched in the majors since 2009, and given the Phillies' circumstances and Grilli's numbers at Triple-A, there has to be a pretty good reason why whoever has been watching him does not think he can help the club.
Well, turns out, there wasn't a good reason. Grilli signed with the Pirates and appeared in 28 games for them over the rest of that season, logging a 2.48 ERA and striking out 10.2 batters per nine innings (against 10.2 walks and 0.6 home runs). This year, he has 27 saves, a 1.72 ERA, 14.5 K/9, 1.7 BB/9 and 0.2 HR/9. Whoever thought Grilli could not be as dominant against big league batters as he was against minor league batters was wrong. Hey, it happens a lot in this business. As Charlie Manuel said yesterday, baseball is a funny game, and you can't really predict why guys like Grilli and Ryan Vogelsong suddenly find their grooves.
Except, the Phillies didn't need to predict that Grilli would find his groove. For most of the first four months of the 2011 season, they simply needed a warm body who could throw the ball in the general direction of home plate (and when we think about Juan Perez, we employ a very loose definition of "general direction). The reason why so many fans express frustration now that he is thriving for the Pirates is that the Phillies in 2011 were a team that had reached the throw-crap-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks phase with regard to its bullpen. When Grilli opted out of his deal on July 21, Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras were both on the disabled list and had been there for the vast majority of the season. Ryan Madson had just returned from a 20-game absence due to a bruised hand. Danys Baez had just been released after a second straight abysmal season (this one featuring a 6.25 ERA in 29 appearances). J.C. Romero had been released.
The fact is that Grilli was one of the few members of the IronPigs roster that didn't get a chance to show what he could do, while forgettable names like Mike Zagurski, Scott Mathieson, Perez and Drew Carpenter kept cycling through the major league roster, despite the fact that Grilli was the one who had actually experienced some success at the big league level. From 2006 through 2008, Grilli appeared in 168 games for the Tigers and Rockies, posting a 3.99 ERA, 115 ERA+, 6.7 K/9, 3.9 BB/9 and 0.5 HR/9. His strikeout rate climbed from 4.5 K/9 in 2006 to 7.0 K/9 in 2007 to 8.3 K/9 in 2008. He finished the 2008 season with a 3.00 ERA in 60 appearances.
Grilli struggled in 2009 as a member of the Rangers, then missed all of 2010 after undergoing knee surgery. He was 34 years old and two years removed from his best major league season when he signed a minor league deal with the Phillies and reported to Triple-A Lehigh Valley for the 2011 season. But nobody has suggested that the Phillies should have had Grilli on their Opening Day roster. Just that he should have been given a chance at some point.
This wasn't like the case of Vogelsong, who had never succeeded in the big leagues and could not find the strike zone at Lehigh Valley before going on to find success with the San Francisco Giants. This wasn't even like Brandon Moss, who would not have had much of a chance to prove himself as a regular with the Phillies even if they hadn't traded for John Bowker to provide the left-handed pop off the bench that they thought Moss couldn't provide (in 571 plate appearances for the A's over the last two seasons, Moss has 35 home runs and an .873 OPS; Bowker is playing in Japan). True, Bowker went 0-for-13 with seven strikeouts down the stretch, but Moss went 0-for-6 with two strikeouts. Raul Ibanez was in left field, and even if he wasn't, then Domonic Brown should have been. Shane Victorino was in center. Hunter Pence was in right. And Ryan Howard was finishing up a season in which he hit 33 home runs with an .835 OPS). Moss simply would not have had a chance to play any more than Bowker did, and that was not enough time for him to make the Phillies think that he was capable of doing for them what he did for the Athletics last year.
Grilli was different because the Phillies had a glaring need, he was having great success at Triple-A, and he actually had a track record that suggested he would not be overmatched by major league hitters (as so many members of that Phillies bullpen were).
In the end, the Phillies chose not to give him that chance. Keep in mind they were flirting with the luxury tax threshold that season. They didn't know whether they would go over it until the start of the offseason. Calling up Grilli would have meant guaranteeing his salary for the rest of the season. Nobody is suggesting that the Phillies are in their current predicament because they blatantly ignored a budding star. At the same time, we wrote volumes about Pat Gillick's ability to sniff out players like Greg Dobbs, Jayson Werth and Chad Durbin. And if we are going to credit World Series rings to those kinds of finds, then it seems a bit disingenuous to suggest that the flip side is all luck of the draw.