Boston Red Sox: Tony Watson as a trade candidate

Tony Watson would fill an important role in the Boston Red Sox bullpen: a lefty set-up man who can get both righties and lefties out.

Much attention has been focused on the Boston Red Sox bullpen going into the offseason. As a group, they ranked fifth in the American League with a bullpen ERA of 3.56. They held opposing hitters to a .233/.286/.386 slash line, good for the second-lowest opponent OPS in the AL. Their K/9 was north of 9, and the only danger sign was their middle-of-the-pack 3.69 BB/9.

So why is everyone freaking out about bullpen help? For one, the team is watching a trio of core contributors enter free agency. Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, and Brad Ziegler are on the open market, leaving a giant hole in the seventh and eighth innings of relief.

Any casual or hardcore observer of baseball over the last few years have noticed an upward trend in reliever usage. Teams are relying more and more on high-strikeout relievers to shut down the back end of games, especially so in the playoffs. When the best teams are competing in an arms race for top bullpen arms, the Red Sox have to keep up.

This brings us to a trade candidate who makes sense regardless of what the Sox end up doing with their free agents: Pirates’ lefty closer Tony Watson.

Mar 3, 2016; Bradenton, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Tony Watson (44) throws a warm up pitch during the fourth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at McKechnie Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Watson recently obtained the closer role in Pittsburgh last year after Mark Melancon was shipped over to Washington at the trade deadline. And after six seasons with the Pirates, it’s safe to say that Watson earned it.

A career 2.56 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, and 6.8 H/9 with an All-Star appearance in 2014 gives the full picture on how dominant he’s been out of the pen. Critics will point to his FIP that is a full run over his ERA, but since he consistently outperforms the FIP each year, the sample size is large enough to say that it isn’t a big factor.

Despite taking over the ninth inning, Watson profiles best as a setup man. With Craig Kimbrel firmly in place in Boston, that’s the role he would be given out of the gate. His career 81.4 left-on-base percentage can give John Farrell confidence when deploying Watson to get out of a jam. And as a lefty, Farrell would have the flexibility to bring him in at will for matchup purposes. While he’s highly effective against righties, holding them to a

.217/.282/.352 line, he’s even more lethal against lefty batters, only allowing a .204/.266/.284 line. Just watch the 6’4” lefty pitch from his sidearm arm slot and imagine trying to hit that as a fellow lefty.

His left-handedness is where Watson would bring the most value to the Red Sox. Kimbrel, Uehara, Ziegler, Tazawa, Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree. What’s the same about all of these relievers who played big roles for the Sox in 2016? They’re all righties.

The need for an effective lefty out of the pen led president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski to snag Fernando Abad from the Twins. And as we know from some frustrating moments last year, Abad can be liable to blow up in spectacular fashion. As reliable as they get, Watson can add some much-needed stability from the left side of the mound.

Now that his value to the Red Sox has been established, the question now shifts to, why would the Pirates trade him?

A notoriously low-spending club, the Pirates always look to cut costs wherever possible and get value for players they know they can’t keep around. In fact, they are doing exactly that with Andrew McCutchen, shopping around their franchise star who has just two seasons of control left.

Watson only has one season left on his contract, set to hit free agency at the end of 2017. His projected arbitration salary is $5.9MM, a price tag that Pittsburgh may find too high for a single reliever. With the market demand for high-impact bullpen arms at its peak after Andrew Miller’s dominant playoff run, it’s a perfect time for the Pirates to maximize returns on Watson.

Tony Watson would help fill an important and currently vacant role in Boston’s bullpen: a lefty set-up man who Farrell can rely on to get both righties and lefties out. It’s a valuable commodity in today’s baseball landscape, and one that the Red Sox should pursue this winter as they gear up for another deep playoff push in 2017.

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