When Ernesto Frieri was last seen in the big leagues, the once-dominant Angels closer was serving up meatballs for the Tampa Bay Rays during a 22 game stint in 2015. Frieri didn’t even play affiliated baseball last year and the 31-year old hasn’t posted a positive fWAR since 2013.
Frieri pitched in this year’s World Baseball Classic for his native Colombia, where he threw two scoreless innings against the Dominican Republic. PitchFX clocked his fastball average at 95.0 mph and Yankees scouts decided that he was worth a minor-league contract, which included an invitation to major league camp.
The move came out of nowhere, but it’s an example of how participating in the WBC can help out of sight free agents looking for jobs catch the eyes of major league clubs. In four spring innings, Frieri allowed four runs, including two homers. But he struck out nine and walked only one batter. He was assigned to Scranton and seemed set on proving himself once again.
“I just want to come here and throw in front of big-league hitters,” he said when he signed in March. “First, prove to myself that I’m ready and that my stuff is back and prove to the Yankees that I can get big-league hitters out. I know a lot of guys have been here longer than me.”
Frieri, who signed as a free agent with the San Diego Padres as a 17-year-old in 2003, made his debut in 2009 and pitched for the team until he was traded in May of 2012 to Anaheim. After taking over as the Angels’ closer following the trade, Frieri converted 60 of 67 save opportunities over two seasons and established himself as one of the best closers in baseball. But then 2014 happened.
After recording an unsightly 6.39 ERA in 34 games with the Angels, Frieri was shipped off to the Pirates in June. The struggles continued and he was demoted to the minors, eventually being released in September. In total, the right-hander recorded a 7.34 ERA in 48 games.
He surfaced with Tampa Bay the following season, cobbling together a 4.63 ERA in 23 1/3 innings. The Rays designated him for assignment in June and he cleared waivers. He was then sent down to Triple-A Durham, where he recorded a 2.40 ERA in 15 appearances. Frieri attended Spring Training with the Phillies last year but didn’t make the roster after allowing nine earned runs in seven innings.
No other major league team called and he was limited to a cameo in winter ball in Venezuela. With his delivery in need of repair, Frieri traveled home to Columbia during his time away from the game and went back to the basics with Manuel Ezquivia, who is now a Cubs scout and has known the right-hander for twenty years.
“I got my delivery back. I got my deception back,” Frieri told reporters during the spring. “I proved myself in the WBC; good hitters couldn’t hit the fastball. They didn’t look that good. Even they talked to me after and they said, ‘Dude, man, you’re back. I can’t pick the ball up. ‘ That’s the old Ernie, like three years ago, so I’m really happy about that.”
This isn’t the first time that he’s claimed to be ready for a career “revival.” Back in 2015, Frieri was convinced that Tampa’s famed pitching coach Jim Hickey would get him straightened out. Even during his heyday with Anaheim, he walked plenty of hitters – career 10.9% walk rate. But Frieri, who has a June 1 opt out in his deal, has been nasty of late.
Dating back to April 19, he’s allowed just 2 earned runs in 17 innings. During that span he has walked just 6 batters and recorded 20 punchouts. In 16 games for Scranton, Frieri has a 2.25 ERA and he has yet to allow a homer. He’s also converted six of seven save opportunities.
With his reputation as a quality late-inning reliever long gone, its no guarantee that Frieri will help the Yankees. But New York has a long history of making use of retreads and he’s worth a shot while Aroldis Chapman continues to heal up.