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Watson makes Pirates' bullpen a force

Lefty reliever has been invaluable for Bucs in setup role
MLB.com @philgrogers

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Tony Watson didn't want the job. But credit the Pittsburgh Pirates for realizing the value that Watson might bring as a reliever.

Watson had climbed to Double-A as a starting pitcher before Jim Benedict decided it was time for Watson to get some experience working out of the bullpen. It was the kind of wisdom that would ultimately give Benedict such cachet that the Marlins would send a pitching prospect to the Pirates for the chance to hire Benedict as their pitching coordinator last fall.

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Tony Watson didn't want the job. But credit the Pittsburgh Pirates for realizing the value that Watson might bring as a reliever.

Watson had climbed to Double-A as a starting pitcher before Jim Benedict decided it was time for Watson to get some experience working out of the bullpen. It was the kind of wisdom that would ultimately give Benedict such cachet that the Marlins would send a pitching prospect to the Pirates for the chance to hire Benedict as their pitching coordinator last fall.

It was also one of the subtle turning points in the Bucs' transition from 20 consecutive losing seasons to a run of three straight postseason appearances.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle calls the 30-year-old lefty from Grimes, Iowa, the "anchor" of a bullpen that has been the most consistent component of a club that has won 280 games over the past three years, second only to the Cardinals in the Majors.

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Watson is one of baseball's best setup men, but he says he's no different than most relievers.

"We're all failed starters, right?" Watson said on Friday before the club's Spring Training workout at Pirate City. "We were all starters in the Minor Leagues. But basically they looked at us and said, 'You can't get through a lineup three times,' so they put us in the bullpen. The guys here took off. We have a lot of confidence in our stuff, just go out there and have the right mentality. Because we are all old starters, we're a cohesive group. We joke about that now."

The task of building bullpens is no joke for most teams. But Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage have been consistently successful in lining up the arms to protect late-inning leads. 

Pittsburgh had four relievers work 73-78 games last season, when the Pirates won 98 games before being shut out by the Cubs' Jake Arrieta in the National League Wild Card Game. Closer Mark Melancon and setup guys Watson, Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero were a calming presence for their teammates.

All of them are back, and they can be assured that Hurdle isn't going to take them for granted.

"My sleep patterns are a whole lot different than they were in Colorado," said Hurdle, whose eight-year stint with the Rockies was highlighted by a trip to the World Series in 2007. "It's not for lack of effort. In Colorado, late in '07, we had a great bullpen. But there were many years guys were trying hard and we weren't getting it done. We tried to make closers, tried to get to the closer, tried to get five innings out of the starter. It was tough math."

The Pirates' bullpen, on the other hand, has ranked in the top five in ERA among NL teams each of the past three seasons, and it has never been better than it is in its current form. Melancon led the NL with 51 saves last season, and the relievers as a group compiled a 2.67 ERA, which also led the league. Only the Cardinals had a better save percentage than the Bucs' 79.4 ratio (54-for-68).

Watson, an NL All-Star who made 78 appearances with a 1.63 ERA in 2014, essentially repeated that performance, finishing with a sub-2.00 ERA for the second straight year.

"He's helped set up three closers now," Hurdle said. "You look at the appearances over 70, the consistency in all the different areas -- walks per strikeouts, ground-ball rate, batting average against -- and also the tenacity. He's been a leader out there, a very quiet leader but a very strong leader. He has definitely been a catalyst in his area. He's been that anchor. He's a guy who you know what you're getting when you open that bullpen door."

Watson credits former Pirates relievers Joel Hanrahan and Jason Grilli for helping him learn how to prepare for a heavy workload as well as how to be a good teammate. 

"I think the main thing is the guys who have been here the past couple years, we all stick together," Watson said. "We all take lot of pride going out there for the skipper every night, being available for the team every night, and you take care of the body, get in early, do things to stay [effective over] the course of the season. It's a long year."

When Grapefruit League play begins next week, Hurdle will take a look at veteran relievers Juan Nicasio and Neftali Feliz. Watson sees the potential for the bullpen to be a force.

"We have a couple of additions that are some really electric arms, and personality wise they're fitting right in," he said. "We're excited to go on this journey together."

Both Watson and Hurdle use the word "hungry" to describe the mindset of the Bucs, who were beaten in the NL Wild Card Game by Giants ace Madison Bumgarner in 2014 before Arrieta shut them down last October.

"We've done some good things," Hurdle said. "The one thing we do is take some time to realize where we were five years ago and how far we've come. Teams prepare for us differently. We talk to more writers now than we did my first few years. People are asking questions. Players want to come here. The street cred is real."

The mission is clear for everyone in camp.

"Every year we're a little more hungry," Watson said. "Ninety-eight wins is nothing to hang our heads about, but we definitely want to win a division, raise a World Series flag in Pittsburgh."

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Tony Watson