Well, this should be fun. Jason Grilli wasn't the most popular guy in Detroit, but made a name for himself as the Pittsburgh Pirates' closer in 2013. What if the Tigers brought him back?
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
At one point, Jason Grilli needed no introduction in Detroit. A former first round pick of the San Francisco Giants in 1997, Grilli was signed by the Tigers prior to the 2005 season. He had already pitched for the Florida Marlins and Chicago White Sox, and it wasn't until 2006 that a 29 year old Grilli spent his first full season in the big leagues. After three up-and-down seasons in Detroit, Grilli was traded to the Colorado Rockies in early 2008. After a torn quadriceps tendon put his career on the ropes in 2009 and 2010, Grilli landed on his feet in Pittsburgh. He quickly gained the trust of manager Clint Hurdle and became the team's closer in 2013. Grilli enjoyed his finest season with the Pirates that year, earning his first career All-Star appearance and saving 33 games in 35 opportunities.
Why should we care?
Because his struggles in Detroit were a long time ago. Since arriving in Pittsburgh in 2011, Grilli has been one of the better relief pitchers in baseball. Everyone knows about his excellent 2013 season -- a 1.97 FIP and 5.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggests it was even better than his ERA indicates -- but he was also quite good in 2012 with the Pirates and during stretches of 2014 with the Angels. In total, Grilli has allowed a 3.09 ERA and 2.83 FIP in 195 1/3 innings over the past four years, with a strikeout rate of nearly 12 batters per nine innings.
Grilli will be 38 years old in four days, but his stuff has shown no signs of slowing down yet (unlike certain closers we know). His fastball velocity in 2014 was nearly identical to its 2013 velocity, which was nearly identical to 2012, and so on. He didn't generate quite as many swings and misses as in previous seasons, but his fastball whiff rate hardly budged from 2013 to 2014. He generated fewer swings and misses outside the strike zone, which could be cause for concern. However, a veteran reliever like him should be able to command a relatively pedestrian one or two-year deal, which would fit perfectly into the current payroll if the Tigers were to use him in a seventh inning role.
Why should we stay away?
Grilli has done something that few pitchers can claim: stick out a 12 year MLB career. However, he has only been considered an above average pitcher for one-third of them. This has led to a rather pedestrian 4.16 career ERA, a 3.88 FIP, and a 2.24 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has allowed a .358 on-base percentage to left-handed hitters in his career, largely thanks to a whopping 13.9 percent walk rate. The Grilli that pitched in Detroit from 2005 to early 2008 was even worse, allowing a 4.31 ERA and 4.32 FIP in 171 1/3 innings.
Also concerning is Grilli's combination of age and ineffectiveness in 2014. Coming off three consecutive seasons with a 130 ERA+ or better, Grilli struggled out of the gate. He allowed a 4.87 ERA and 5.39 FIP in 20 1/3 innings with the Pirates, though an oblique strain he suffered in mid-April was partially to blame. He struggled mightily in June after returning from the injury, allowing a 1.009 OPS in his final 10 appearances with the Pirates. Things got better after Grilli was traded to the Angels in late June; he allowed a 2.15 FIP and 3.40 xFIP in 33 2/3 innings down the stretch, though his strikeout rate did not return to pre-2014 levels.
Will he end up in Detroit?
It's possible. Someone will inevitably mention Jim Leyland's parting comments about Grilli when the latter was sent packing in 2008, but I don't think that this will deter the veteran from a second stint in Detroit. Instead, Grilli's potential insistence on a closer or setup role -- something he won't get with the Tigers, at least right away -- may cause him to look elsewhere. However, given his age and the down year he had in 2014, anyone who offers a decent sized paycheck should have a good chance of signing him. It's also worth pointing out that Dave Dombrowski has acquired Grilli on two separate occasions already in his career.