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Pirates trade candidates: Tony Watson vs. Antonio Bastardo

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last night at MLBTR, I discussed the remaining offseason needs of each team in the NL Central. What stands out for the Pirates, of course, is the glut of left-handed pitching in their bullpen. They've got Tony Watson at closer, plus Felipe Rivero, Antonio Bastardo, Wade LeBlanc and Tyler Webb.

It isn't at all automatic that Rule 5 pick Webb will contribute in 2017, and it might not be that LeBlanc will either. But even that leaves three lefties, raising the possibility of a deal. They almost certainly won't trade Rivero, who appears to have closer-type upside and has five years of control remaining. That leaves Watson and Bastardo.

Of the two, Bastardo appears more likely to go. The Pirates haven't been shy about getting rid of top relievers in recent seasons, but the time doesn't seem right to move Watson. Here's why.

  • He's coming off a somewhat disappointing season, and all potential trade partners can see that. His ERA and BB/9 were both uncharacteristically high, his ground ball rate was his lowest since 2013, and his average fastball velocity slipped a bit, from 94.4 MPH in 2014 to 93.2 last year.
  • This isn't the right time to market Watson as a closer. He has limited experience in the role, with only 15 saves last year (thanks, of course, to the trade of Mark Melancon in July), and the free agent still has several at least semi-credible closer types, including Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Greg Holland and Neftali Feliz. All those players come with question marks, but so does Watson. There are also others potentially available on the trade market, including Alex Colome, David Robertson and perhaps Francisco Rodriguez, all of whom are probably more marketable as closers than Watson is. And there aren't many contending teams left who aren't likely to be satisfied with their closer, with the Nationals potentially standing out as an exception.
  • The Pirates could, of course, trade Watson now to a team seeking a setup man. But they likely wouldn't command a premium price for Watson in that context, since Watson only has one year of team control remaining and didn't have an elite season by setup standards in 2016.
  • If the Pirates are going to use Watson as a closer, then he's actually partially irrelevant to the team's glut of left-handed relievers, particularly if, as I would guess, the backup plan should he be traded is to use righty Daniel Hudson at closer. (Hudson is under contract for two years and then becomes a free agent; Rivero can remain with the Pirates for five more years, and his 2019-2021 salaries will increase significantly if he gets a bunch of saves.) The closer typically pitches the ninth when the team is up three or fewer runs, regardless of the handedness and tendencies of the opposing batters. We can give Clint Hurdle a little bit of credit for using his closer in a more nuanced way than that, but that's basically what it boils down to. So if Watson is a closer, the fact that he's a lefty doesn't matter that much.

It might be better, then, for the Pirates to let Watson reestablish himself and build value as a credible closer, then decide whether to trade him in July, when there could be a couple teams desperate to upgrade at the closer role.

For Bastardo, there are few such complications. He isn't a closer, and the Pirates, who got him for the bargain-basement price of Jon Niese, likely don't expect to get a haul in return for him anyway. As Jeff Todd at MLBTR recently pointed out, there are still a variety of teams that could use lefty relief help. There are also only a few decent lefties (Boone Logan, Jerry Blevins, J.P. Howell, Travis Wood) remaining on the free agent market, and some of the ones who have signed (Mike Dunn, Marc Rzepczynski) suggest a market that's trending upwards for southpaws.

Bastardo isn't a standard lefty specialist -- he doesn't have extreme splits for his career, and he actually allowed an .816 OPS against lefties last year. He's held them to a .636 OPS and .193 average against for his career, however.

And nitpicking about Bastardo's skill set probably misses the point. The Pirates aren't going to let him close next season, so their chances of getting something great for him in a trade are probably limited regardless of when they move him. That isn't true of Watson, who could easily become a very attractive trade piece with three good months. For those reasons, then, I think Bastardo is significantly more likely than Watson to be traded this offseason.