Joel Hanrahan's departure in a six-man trade to Boston passes the hammer at the end of the Pirates' bullpen to Jason Grilli, that famous reliever for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic. The 36-year-old paesano has worked up to this opportunity for a dozen years, filling a variety of odd pitching jobs along the way.
"It's been a bumpy ride," Grilli said. "I've had the attitude: Give me a broom and I'll sweep. I did my job and took pride in whatever was asked of me. But I always felt capable of so much."
Instead of a broom, the Pirates are giving Grilli a chance -- along with the first multiyear contract of his career: a two-year, $6.75 million deal that kept the free agent in Pittsburgh.
Grilli earned that chance with his lights-out work last season as the Bucs' lead setup reliever. As a mind trip, the distance from the eighth to the ninth inning could be the longest in baseball. The free-spirit Grilli has the proper attitude for the task, including the recognition that the ninth inning is a whole different alley fight.
He got to dabble in it a couple times last season when Hanrahan was unavailable, and came away from the experience with an appreciation for guys who did it for a living.
"I've got to give a lot of credit for what Hanny does," Grilli would say on those occasions. "He does a great job. There's definitely a lot more adrenaline, coming on in the ninth when the game's on the line."
The overhaul goes deeper than just the end of the bullpen line, of course. There is a trickle-down affect, and how that shakes out will influence the bullpen's efficiency as much as Grilli's ability to make a smooth transition.
Grilli is the only remaining cog of the end-game quartet that was money last season. When Juan Cruz or Chris Resop, Grilli and Hanrahan worked the seventh-eighth-ninth shuttle, the Pirates were 13-0. The key to that was Grilli himself. He pitched the eighth 52 times (out of his 64 appearances), and the Bucs were 38-14 in those games.
The late-season release of Cruz and the trades of Hanrahan and Resop blew up that track record. Bullpen makeovers are common, and the Pirates have undertaken that in a major way.
In reality, the Pirates' approach will be the proverbial closer-by-committee, although Grilli is the chairman of that committee. But given his inexperience in the role, the staff has to be prepared to make changes, and will spend Spring Training identifying candidates.
Mark Melancon is an obvious alternate. He closed, quite successfully, for a poor 2011 Astros club. A Houston team that went 56-106 was an amazing 40-31 in his 71 appearances, as he earned 20 saves.
Jared Hughes could be a rising relief stud, with his stuff and combative mound presence. Left-hander Tony Watson is another possibility, because he is equally effective against right-handed hitters and has demonstrated the icy demeanor to pitch out of trouble.
In a perfect world, obviously Grilli nails the closer's job and the other lively arms become his setup crew.
Behind this front line, a veritable throng will compete for the three other bullpen seats. The inside track includes Bryan Morris, who reinforced a solid Triple-A season with his successful first big league cup of coffee; Chris Leroux, trying to re-establish himself after losing half of last season to a rare pectoral-muscle strain; Justin Wilson, who could be a left-handed version of 2012's Brad Lincoln -- someone capable of providing spot starts and multiple innings out of the bullpen; lefty Jeff Locke, if he is locked out of the rotation; and big league vets Kyle Waldrop and Mike Zagurski, who are coming to camp on non-roster invites.