By now, every Pirate fan has an opinion on if the Pirates should trade Andrew McCutchen. I was recently part of a roundtable with other writers here at TPOP on what will/should happen. That topic is going to be talked about from now until the day McCutchen stops playing for the Pirates. It’s single-handedly keeping the Pirates’ hot stove… er… lukewarm.
So today, I’m going to throw some gasoline on that hot stove and pose a different question: should they trade Tony Watson? According to Mariners’ beat writer Bob Dutton of The News Tribune, he is believed to be available.
It makes sense why Watson would be up for grabs. He’s entering his last year of arbitration control, and even after a down year he stands to get a nice payday once he hits the open market that would probably be out of the Pirates’ comfort zone. It’s the exact same scenario that they were in last year with Mark Melancon.
Watson is lined up to get a nice bump in pay from last year’s $3.45 million salary. Our very own Kevin Creagh has him pegged at $5.8 million next year, which is right in line with what other arbitration models forecast. That money could be allocated elsewhere. That is probably enough to bring back Neftali Feliz and Sean Rodriguez. It might be enough for rolling the dice on Greg Holland. If you’re a true optimist, the savings could be used to give Ivan Nova a bigger contract.
The only reason for keeping Watson in 2017 is if the front office believes he can return to his 2013-2015 self.
Well, can he?
2016 was by no means a bad year for Watson. It just wasn’t very, dare I say, elementary. He had some trouble after inheriting the closer’s job, but he still had an ERA just a tick above three in 70 games pitched. His strikeout and walk rates were a little off from his best years, but right in line with his career numbers.
Watson’s greatest struggle was keeping the ball in the park. He allowed 10 dingers in 2016 after allowing just 13 in over 200 innings from 2013-2015. There were reports of “juiced” baseballs last year, and whether or not that’s true, last year was an abnormally great year for homers. We’ll have to wait to see if it’s sustainable.
Either way, Watson’s ERA jumped into the threes and his FIP went up a run and a half from 2015. His fWAR dropped from 1.4 to -0.1.
His sinker is a big reason for the drop in production.
Watson was a rare breed of reliever in 2014, having five pitches at his disposal. He simplified that in 2015, ditching the cutter. In 2016, he exclusively threw the sinker, slider and changeup. That’s still a very good mix for a reliever, but his go-to sinker was subpar, being worth -2.6 weighted runs below average, according to Fangraphs’ PITCHf/x pitch values. The average velocity was down 1.1 MPH from his All-Star campaign in 2014.
Batters hit .267 against the sinker, which is 28 points higher than his career mark. It also yielded less ground balls and swings outside of the strike zone than it had in years past.
While he had trouble with his main pitch, Watson’s secondary stuff was top notch. He went to the changeup on nearly one fourth of his pitches, and it ended up being worth 10 weighted runs better than average. Overall, teams hit .135 against the change and .136 against his slider.
But even with the emergence of the changeup, the projections for his 2017 don’t look pretty. Steamer has him as a 0.5 WAR player, but with an uninspiring 3.56 ERA, which would be his worst since his rookie season.
Watson has been used 403 times since 2011 and has made at least 67 appearances a year since his rookie campaign. He’s going to turn 32 in May, so those years of using him every other day may finally be catching up. He wouldn’t be the first reliever to fall victim to the workload over time.
Still, Watson has stood up to the test of being used 70 times a season for years now. If he’s used a little less often out of the bullpen, it would probably keep him fresher.
And once again, I feel like I should mention again that Watson had a pretty good season last year. It just didn’t meet the very high expectations he had set in years past. I know this article has been mostly negative, but just about every team would kill for a Tony Watson.
So if they would kill for him, should the Pirates supply the demand?
They would not be selling low on Watson. Even with three elite closers on the market, just about every contender is desperate for relievers. The previously mentioned Mariners are looking for a hard throwing lefty. The Mets will probably be looking for a closer depending on what happens with Jeurys Familia in his domestic abuse case. Mix in the other clubs who miss out on Chapman, Melancon and Jansen, and there is a market for Watson.
Any trade probably should bring back at least one major leaguer. While Rivero seemed comfortable in the eighth inning role in September, he probably should be steered clear of the closer job for now. Someone like Feliz or Holland would probably have to be acquired to close. If two months of Melancon could bring back a quick fixer-upper like Rivero and a minor league lefty who throws 100, a year of Watson could have a similar return.
The majority of this team is under contract through 2018 and beyond. As it stands right now, the only players who are entering their last year of team control are Watson, John Jaso and Juan Nicasio. Watson is the biggest name out of the three and probably the only one who could give the Pirates someone worthwhile.
This is not a call to trade Watson. Even with some ugly writing on the wall with his sinker, he could be an All-Star again in 2016. The reasons for keeping him are obvious.
But if you’re going to entertain trading your superstar because his contract is nearing its end, he’s making a lot of money and coming off the worst year of his career, you have to apply the same mentality to Watson as well.