Watson confident he could be Pirates closer, if needed

If Tony Watson hadn't already put together what a possible trade involving Mark Melancon would mean for him, the fans at PirateFest reminded him.

"A couple people asked how it feels to be the closer," their left-handed setup man said Saturday, referring to the team's recent question-and-answer session with fans. "I'm not the closer."

The Pirates entered this offseason either actively trying to trade or listening to offers for the arbitration-eligible players who will reach free agency after the 2016 season. Two already are gone -- Pedro Alvarez, whom they non-tendered, and Neil Walker, whom they sent to the New York Mets. Two more, catchers Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, are currently the starting and backup catcher, integral to the 2016 roster.

That leaves Melancon, who saved a major league-high 51 games this past season. He might earn as much as $10 million, according to projections by MLB Trade Rumors, in his final year of arbitration.

"We've never had to trade Mark," said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, who noted that shedding Charlie Morton's $8 million salary had no effect on trading or keeping Melancon. "It's all been, if we're better with him with us or if we think it's a better move for the organization to move him elsewhere, and that still applies. ... We like the thought of Mark Melancon and Watson anchoring the back end of that bullpen.

"At the same time, if somebody steps up and gives us a return that's sufficient enough to motivate us to get a little bit uncomfortable, then we get a little bit uncomfortable."

Trading one of the game's best closers seems strange on the surface, especially for a team that won 98 games in 2015 and plays in a tough division. Were the Pirates to do so, they would want to use the move to fill another hole on the club, possibly by acquiring a starting pitcher or a quality left-handed first baseman to platoon with Michael Morse. Melancon might also represent 10 percent of the Pirates payroll while only pitching about 70 innings.

But in the same division as the Chicago Cubs, who added John Lackey, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, and the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pirates might want to retain the strong tandem of Watson and Melancon to ensure they continue to win the games they're supposed to win. More and more teams are building bullpens this way, especially as the price of starting pitching increases.

"You've got to respect the chain of command, and they've put together some great clubs for us the last couple years," Watson said. "No reason to think they won't do it again. It's on us to keep working hard and take care of our business and do our job and let them worry about that stuff."

The Pirates believe Watson can get the job done. He had a 1.91 ERA in 751/3 innings in 2015, pitching mostly the eighth inning, and had a 0.956 WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched).

"It's his job," Watson said of Melancon. "But if something were to happen, I definitely have confidence in myself that I could get the job done for us."

The Pirates bullpen currently contains Melancon, Watson, Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero. Juan Nicasio and Allen Webster, two recent additions, are likely to make the bullpen since they are out of options, meaning the Pirates couldn't send them to the minors without risking losing them to another team. So is Bobby LaFromboise, who is also the only other left-handed reliever on the 40-man roster. Jorge Rondon is also out of options, but Rob Scahill and Guido Knudson have options remaining.

"We've had some really good bullpens the last couple years. This one's going to be no different," Watson said. "We've got everybody that's coming back, plus the additions. It's still a young offseason, so I'm sure there'll be some more."