Tony Watson struggled at times as the closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016. Will the soon to be free agent reliever have a lot of wiggle room as the closer if he struggles out of the gate in 2017?

Tony Watson will enter 2017 as the closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the first time he has had the distinguished duty to start a season. But if he starts this season like how he ended the last one, just how long with he keep the closing role?

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Why did he struggle last year?

Watson had a rocky end of the season once he took over the ninth inning duties for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He blew three save opportunities (for a total of five on the season), including a disastrous outing against St. Louis when he pitched just two thirds of an inning and gave up three home runs and four runs overall.

Not only did he blow three save opportunities, but he had three saves in August and September when he gave up a run, so even in the games when he earned the save teams were still able to put a run on the board.

One problem that plagued Watson in 2016 was the number of fly balls that ended up over the fence rather than in his teammate’s gloves. His fly ball percentage went from 31.6 in 2015 to 38.4 last season. A jump of just over seven percent may not seem like much, but for Watson it was a major issue because of the increase in home runs he gave up as well. His HR/FB of 4.6 percent in 2015 rose tremendously to 14.1 last year. This is one reason that while his 3.06 ERA last year looks good on the surface, his FIP of 4.37 tells a different story.

Projection time!

Steamer and ZiPS, two sets of projections found on a player’s Fangraphs page, have some disagreements on Watson in 2017. Steamer sees Watson nailing down 36 games this year while ZiPS is way less optimistic, seeing him save just eight games. 36 saves is a lot, especially given his struggles last season and this spring, but eight seems way too low. With the Pittsburgh Pirates again expected to compete for a Wild Card berth, it makes sense that they’ll see their fair share of close games. Because of this Watson should see plenty of save opportunities if he keeps the job. Both predict a better K/9 ratio this season with 8.25 (Steamer) and 8.13 (ZiPS) both trumping his 7.71 last year.

Watson was a 1.4 WAR player in 2014 and 2015 before dropping to an unsightly -0.1 last year. While neither sees Watson matching what he did two years ago, Steamer (0.5) and ZiPS (0.6) at least see him get back into the positives numbers.

How long is his leash?

It’s hard to envision the Pittsburgh Pirates pulling the plug on Watson as the closer early in the season as he recently gained a vote of confidence from GM Neal Huntington. Watson’s previous success has at least for the foreseeable future, but that does not mean that he has the job if he struggle for a prolonged period of time. The team has other strong options, both left handed and right handed, that can take over the closing duties of need be.

For instance, if his April and May numbers look anything like those from March, he’ll most likely find himself demoted to a different role in the bullpen. So far this spring he has thrown five and a third innings and given up eight runs on eight hits and four walks. If there is any silver lining to be drawn from his spring, it’s that he has at least struck out eight hitters.

Could he be a trade candidate?

Given that Watson is only under contract for 2017, Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington could look to move him at the trade deadline this summer. In fact, even if the Pirates are contending in July it would make sense to deal the lefty.

He’ll be a free agent at the end of the season and there are no scenarios where it makes sense for the Pirates to offer him a multi-year deal, something he is going to be looking for on the open market next winter. Felipe Rivero can easily slot into the late inning lefty role that Watson occupies, and some may even prefer Rivero over Watson at this point.

If Watson’s numbers return to somewhere close to his career averages, he could be a top commodity at the deadline. He would most likely be a rental player in the truest sense of the term, but he could still net the Pirates a decent return. He won’t bring back one of the top prospects in the game, but he could return someone that helps the organization at some point.

Like his teammate Andrew McCutchen, Watson is most likely playing his last season (or half season, perhaps) with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Perhaps this final year will be when Watson gets to experience a deep playoff run with the club that drafted him in 2007.

Photo Credit – Daniel Decker Photography

Ethan Obstarczyk

Ethan is a lifelong Pirates fan who resides in the east end of Pittsburgh. When not talking about, writing about or watching baseball, he also enjoys watching football and hockey along with movies and listening to some of his favorite bands. He can also be found on Instagram (ethanobstarczyk) and Untappd (Ethan_O).