Tony Watson undoubtedly played a significant — if, at times, unheralded — role in the Pirates making three consecutive postseason appearances from 2013-15 while ending their record string of 20 consecutive losing seasons
The left-hander also had a 17-4 record. While wins many not mean much, especially for a relief pitcher, they sure look good on the back of a baseball card and in the box score.
However, Watson hasn’t been the same pitcher the last two seasons. He had a 3.06 ERA in 70 games and 67 2/3 innings last year. This season, that mark has risen to that mark is 4.44 through 24 games and 26 1/3 innings.
Part of Watson’s decline is likely due to age as he turned 32 last Tuesday. And part of it almost certainly is because of overuse after Watson’s 292 relief appearances from 2013-16 were the third-most in the major leagues behind the Cleveland Indians’ Bryan Shaw (299) and Melancon (297).
Ironically, the Pirates made Watson the closer last year after trading Melancon to the Washington Nationals for left-handed reliever Felipe Rivero on July 30. Now would be a good time to have Rivero replace Watson.
This isn’t a kneejerk reaction to Watson blowing saves in both games of a series against the Orioles on Tuesday and Wednesday nights that resulted in Baltimore sweeping the short interleague set at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Watson has blown five of 11 save chances this season and been successful on just 25 of 33 opportunities since the Melancon-Rivero trade. A 75.8-percent conversion rate doesn’t cut it when elite closers lock down 90 percent of their chances.
Most top-flight closers also have one of two characteristics. They either throw extremely hard or have another pitch that is practically unhittable, such as Melancon’s cut fastball.
Watson’s fastball is averaging 92.5 mph this season and has topped out at 95. His other pitches are ordinary, which means the lack of high-octane velocity leaves him little margin for error in a job where one pitch can often determine the outcome of a game.
Rivero, on the other hand, is averaging 97.9 mph with his heater, including a top speed of 102. Additionally, the 26-year-old has an outstanding changeup that keeps hitters from cheating on the fastball.
Rivero lowered his ERA to a microscopic 0.58 through 31 games by pitching another scoreless inning Wednesday night. He also dropped his WHIP to 0.74, an equally outstanding figure.
Watson is eligible for free agency at the end of the season and this is surely his final year with the Pirates. He has a $5.6-million salary this season, pricing him out of the low-budget franchise’s price range.
Nobody stays a Pirate forever, even a good soldier like Watson, who has spent his entire career in the organization after being drafted from Nebraska in the ninth round of the 2007 amateur draft.
Despite his struggles, Watson should draw plenty of interest as the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline nears. Plenty of contenders would love to have him as a set-up man or middle reliever.
Rivero, meanwhile, is under the Pirates’ control through 2021 and his career appears to be taking off.
The Pirates always talk about keeping one eye on the present and one eye on the future.
With that in mind, it’s time to look to the future and see if Rivero can be the lockdown closer they sorely need.