Tony Watson is the biggest trade chip in the Pirates’ arsenal


On the heels of another dominant campaign, left-handed reliever Tony Watson is slated to be an integral part of Clint Hurdle‘s bullpen in 2015 and beyond – and for good reason.

Penciled in as the primary eighth-inning man getting the ball to closer Mark Melancon, the southpaw isn’t set to reach free agency until after the 2017 season – giving the Pirates three more years of team control before facing a critical decision.

After leading the league with 78 appearances in 2014, in which he posted a sterling 1.63 earned run average and 1.022 WHIP, Watson was ranked as the tenth-best reliever in Major League Baseball recently by MLB Network, joining his teammate Melancon on the list.

Heading into his age 30 season, Watson is poised for a major payday in a few years. This season, he’s set to make $1.75 million – and will receive subsequent raises in the years to come. However, when he hits the open market at age 32 – simply put, the question is this: how will Pittsburgh afford to keep an elite reliever on its payroll?

This winter, general manager Neal Huntington gave left-hander Francisco Liriano the richest free agent contract in team history – totaling $39 million over the next three seasons. When looking at free agent relievers, the numbers are a bit different, but a good comparison may be Andrew Miller, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the New York Yankees this offseason.

Over the last three seasons, here is how Miller and Watson stack up:

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Much the same as Miller worked almost exclusively as a late-inning arm, rather than a bona fide closing pitcher, Watson has been a quality arm that gives the Pirates an enviable position – at least for now. Once the left-hander hits the open market, however, things could change drastically.

If he keeps up his quality of work early this season, as should be expected, it stands to reason that Watson will draw plenty of interest from teams looking for an elite back-end arm. And it makes even more sense that Huntington listens and works to find the right return for such a piece.

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Even if Pittsburgh has the payroll flexibility come the 2017 offseason, it’s hard to imagine the team giving a contract in the $40 to $50 million range to a man who pitches an inning or two every few days. It’s not to say that the team won’t get more active in the free agent market, but given the pitching depth in the system, Huntington could deal from a position of strength – starting with Watson.

The asking price for not only a dominant reliever – but a top-notch left-hander – would be high, but given the lack of left-handed relief options of this caliber, Pittsburgh could get a strong return on Watson – especially given his combination of multiple years of team control and relative youth.

There’s nothing mandating a trade of the Sioux City, Iowa native – but with multiple relief options in tow and more coming down the pipeline in the farm system, dealing Watson could be a major step toward solidifying the future of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

Next: Gerrit Cole now has a complete arsenal of pitches