SF Giants: Buy or Sell – Veteran Reliever Tony Watson
By Jeff Young
The SF Giants have a handful of key free agents, including Tony Watson, but the question is, should they reunite with the left-handed hurler in free agency?
The SF Giants list of free agents includes Watson, Trevor Cahill, Drew Smyly, and Kevin Gausman. The case for keeping Gausman is a slam dunk, but the cases for keeping the remaining three are a little more nuanced.
At Around the Foghorn, we will be analyzing each case and deciding whether to buy (keep) each free agent or sell (let walk in free agency).
The SF Giants case for keeping Watson
The veteran southpaw has quietly been one of the more effective relievers in baseball over the last decade. Across ten seasons, Watson has posted a 2.80 ERA (3.61 FIP) with a 1.09 WHIP and 32 saves.
The 35-year-old has never relied on a premium fastball to generate outs. Rather, he employs a deceptive delivery from the left side to disrupt the opposing hitter’s time.
And, he has been very good at that. Over the course of his career, he has induced a ground ball in 44.3 percent of his batted ball events to go along with a solid 1.26 groundball/flyball ratio.
The long-time Pittsburgh Pirates hurler became a free agent following the 2017 season, but his market never really materialized. In an opportunistic move, San Francisco reeled in the southpaw on a three-year contract with escalators.
The Giants went the entire 2017 season without Javier Lopez, so they decided to clone him and name him Tony Watson. Cloning is not a new phenomenon, we have known about it for years.
Anyways, Watson’s contract was complicated to help the Giants from exceeding the Collective Bargaining Tax (CBT). However, the final year was renegotiated to make it a $3 million guaranteed salary.
During the life of that contract, Watson proved to be a quality reliever even as he enters his mid-30’s. In three seasons with the Orange and Black, he pitched to a 3.20 ERA (3.62 FIP) across 138 innings.
He was a weapon out of the bullpen, especially against left-handed hitters as they posted a meager .174 batting average off of Watson in 2020.
Despite this, his strikeout numbers continue to decline while he posted a 27.6 percent, 17.7 percent, and 20.5 percent strikeout in 2018, 2019, and 2020, respectively. He only collected two saves in his Giants tenure, so they were never completely comfortable giving him the ninth inning, even when there were few other options.
That said, Watson dialed in another solid campaign in 2020. Across 18 frames, he posted a 2.50 ERA (4.36 FIP) with 15 strikeouts and a 0.889 WHIP. He had a 0.53 ERA heading into the final weekend of the season, but he yielded four earned runs in his final two appearances that spanned just one inning.
On top of this, he allowed an 84.8 MPH exit velocity against opposing hitters, which is the second-lowest mark of his career as opposing hitters struggled to make meaningful contact off of Watson.
The veteran hurler will become a free agent again after the World Series. He should have a stout market, even though his fastball velocity sits comfortably below 90 MPH.
I do think some teams may be scared away by his age (35) and the fact that his FIP has been above 4 in each of the last two seasons. With the shortened 2020 season, getting a read on a reliever in a tiny sample is not an enviable position. However, Watson has extensive experience on his resume.
Watson’s case is a complicated one. On one hand, he met the expectations of a $3 million salary in 2020 and really is not in line for a raise in 2021.
On the other hand, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi does not seem inclined to invest in bullpen arms. They are the most volatile and unpredictable area to spend on, and I feel like the Giants will sell Watson rather than bring him back for a fourth season.