Over the past decade, the most consistent spot on the Pirates has been the closer position. Even when the team was a bottom feeder in the National League, you could still expect high production out of that role. From Matt Capps to Joel Hanrahan, the 9th inning has always been in good hands.
Last season, the Pirates dealt away their closer Mark Melancon at the August trade deadline. Melancon was in the final year of his deal with the club and rather lose him in free agency at the end of the year, Neal Huntington made the decision to try and get something in return for their All-Star closer. It wasn’t a favorable move with some Pirate fans, who cried out that the team was still in contention for the postseason. Melancon was pretty much one of the only bright spots in a bullpen that had struggled for much of 2016, posting a 1.51 ERA and 30 saves in 45 appearances. Additionally, Mark the Shark had a bullish 51 saves, a Major League-best and franchise record, and a 2.23 ERA in 2015.
Taking over the closer role for Melancon after the trade was Tony Watson. Many speculated that Watson would eventually take over the closer role at some point with the success he achieved as a setup man. In his first month as closer, Watson seemed to be comfortable in his role. He posted a 2.84 ERA and 10 saves in 14 appearances. But in September, like the club itself, the wheels fell off for Watson. In 11 appearances, his ERA ballooned to 5.06 while his saves were cut in half to 5.
Despite his late season downfall, Watson is still penciled in as the closer for 2017. This isn’t a surprise since he has been so reliable for Clint Hurdle in the past. And unlike last season, there is no other relief pitcher on the roster with significant experience closing out games. Neftalí Feliz, who appeared in 62 games for the Pirates last season ending with a 3.52 ERA and 2 saves, signed with the Milwaukee Brewers over the winter. Feliz will join former Bucs pitcher Rob Scahill in the Brewers bullpen and will likely serve as their closer after Tyler Thornburg was traded to the Boston Red Sox.
However, there are a few pitchers in the bullpen who could end up as the closer if Watson does struggle or goes down with injury in 2017. Felipe Rivero was one of the players acquired in the Melancon along with minor league pitcher Taylor Hearn. Like Watson, Rivero is a left hander who throws a four seam fastball, slider and change up. He does bring a bit more heat than his contemporary, regularly hitting 97 MPH, sometimes even 100, compared to 94 MPH from Watson.
The trade to the Pirates did wonders for Rivero in the short term. In 47 appearances prior to the deal, he recorded a 4.53 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 49.2 innings. His ERA was down significantly from 2015 when he posted a 2.79 ERA in 49 games over 48.1 innings. But with the Pirates, Rivero had one of the best months of his career in August with a 0.64 ERA in 15 appearances. As with Watson, September was a bit rough on the young left hander. He saw his ERA shoot through the roof to 6.57 in 12 appearances, giving up 9 earned runs compared to only 1 in August.
Regardless, the Pirates are fully invested in the long haul with Rivero. The team will have control of the 25-year old for 5 more seasons, with Rivero not becoming a free agent until 2022. This is type of control is what small market teams like Pirates crave for when they are making trades. That being said, the club has plenty of time to mold Rivero into their next dominant closer. But with Watson able to enter free agency after this season, the Pirates may want to give him a few opportunities to close if the main closer is unavailable to pitch. To bring finances into it, as a future Super Two candidate, Rivero will get four cracks at arbitration so the Pirates will want to suppress his save totals so that his salary platform remains low as possible. In the meantime, Rivero will likely serve as 7th inning or setup pitcher in the bullpen for 2017. Rivero is going to be a good closer down the road for the Pirates, but unless Watson has a full scale collapse this season, look for him to be his understudy.
The other reliever on the roster who may find his way into the closer conversation is Daniel Hudson. Hudson was signed by the Pirates in the offseason on a 2 year/$11 million contract after spending the previous 6 seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The right hander was originally a starter in the beginning of his career 16-12 with a 3.49 ERA in 2011. But after struggling in 2012 and two Tommy John surgeries that caused him to miss all of 2013 and most of 2014, Hudson was moved to the bullpen. While he did post a 3.86 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 64 games in 2015, last season was ugly by comparison. His ERA spiked to 5.22 and his strikeouts decreased to 58 despite appearing in 6 more games than 2015.
The signing of Hudson is another attempt at a reclamation of a once-decent pitcher who has lost his way. To his credit, he did earn 9 saves over the past 2 seasons, which would give him the second most among current Pirates on the roster. Honestly, I don’t feel Hudson will challenge Watson for the closer’s spot at least at first. If he does have a good stretch and Watson struggles, mixed with Hurdle not trusting Rivero in the role, he may get his shot at closing.
With all this being said, I expect Tony Watson to be the Pirates closer in 2017. While I don’t think he will put up the Melancon numbers or even have an All-Star type season like he did in 2014, he is going to still be an above-average closer. Having success in this role, whether it’s Watson or not, will go a long way in the Pirates having a turnaround season. Hopefully Greg Brown can say ‘elementary’ many times this season at the end of games. If Brown is doing that, you know Watson is doing his job.