By Jason Shetler
After pitching mostly as a starter in the Pirates system, Tony Watson arrived to Pittsburgh as a reliever in 2011. During the Pirates three year playoff stretch from 2013 to 2015, Watson not only was a huge contributor in the bullpen, but also began to establish himself as one of the better lefty relievers in baseball, posting a 1.98 ERA, a 192 ERA+ and a Fielding Independent Pitching of 2.91.
Following the trade of Mark Melancon last year, Watson took over the closers role, and did not look particularly sharp. He ended the season with a 4.37 FIP, which was a career high for him. This past offseason, Watson was the only arbitration eligible player to take the Pirates to an arbitration hearing. He lost his case, settling for $5.6 million, this after asking for $6 million.
As expected, Watson began this year as the Pirates closer, in the hopes that he would perform like the Tony Watson of old with a clean slate. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Watson is regressing even more so in 2017, with an ERA of 4.44 and a FIP that is much higher at 5.76. His last two save chances resulted in blown saves on game-tying home runs, both of which the Pirates lost in extra innings to the Orioles in Baltimore.
While Tony Watson had once been an elite level bullpen arm not long ago, he is nowhere close to that now, as his stuff continues to decline. Aside from the decrease in fastball velocity, his changeup is no longer an effective pitch. It sounds obvious, but Watson currently is a replacement level pitcher (-0.6 WAR). Having Felipe Rivero as the Pirates closer is very much welcomed, but moving Watson back to the setup role, doesn’t fix the problem. It also won’t help to have Watson start pitching in low leverage situations on a regular basis, since he’s making close to $6 million, and because the Pirates can use inexpensive options for those scenarios. As much as Tony Watson was a vital part of the Bucs bullpen, it’s time to accept the fact that he doesn’t have it anymore, and for both sides to move on.