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Tony Watson wasn’t the closer, but he nearly saved the Giants’ season

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The last guy to join the team became the first real bright spot of the season.

San Francisco Giants v Oakland Athletics Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

STAT LINE: 66.0 IP, 2.59 ERA (2.45 FIP), 72 K : 14 BB, 4 home runs allowed, 32 holds!

Tony Watson signed with the Giants on the day pitchers and catchers reported for Spring Training. It was a 2-year, $7 million contract and includes a club option for 2020. The deal saved the Giants’ season.

Oh sure, the Giants’ season ultimately wound up being beyond saving, but Tony Watson was only the second unanimous quality player the Giants brought in to fix their broken 2017 team. Andrew McCutchen was the other, as there were questions about Evan Longoria’s decline and Austin Jackson’s ultimate utility — we all knew the Giants would thrust a player they intended to be a bench player into a starting role — and who knew about Derek Holland who was there on a minor league deal anyway?

But with Watson, the front offices of Major League Baseball were so focused on staying under the luxury tax threshold that they ignored one of the best left-handed relievers on the free agent market. Oft-injured closer Mark Melancon knew Watson well, knew his situation, and never stopped pitching a union between Watson and the Giants:

“I think I did, I’ve been pitching at him for the entire offseason and even prior to that,” Melancon said. “When he was in LA, I was like, ‘We need you over here now.’ So since September of last year I think.”

The Giants had no choice but to swoop. Was it a sign that there would be some even year magic afoot?

He made his season debut on the first night of the season at Dodger Stadium and struck out the side. The Giants were clinging to a 1-0 and it was getting to the point of the game where they had blown every opportunity just the year before. Sure, maybe the adrenaline of the moment was influencing Watson — the Dodgers had traded for him at the 2017 deadline but chose not to re-sign him — but the next day, with the Giants in a 0-0 tie and both teams having allowed just 1 hit, he pitched the eighth inning again, struck out 2 batters, and wound up getting the win after Joe Panik’s solo home run in the top of the ninth.

Two nights, two scoreless innings, and making it look easy against Seager, Puig, Bellinger, Grandal, and Matt Kemp (who was good again). Tony Watson took the most direct route to winning the hearts and minds of Giants fans everywhere. He was scored on only once in the month of April (12.2 innings pitched), once in September (8.1), and not at all in June (12.1). Somehow, he was not an All-Star.

His 1.8 wins above replacement puts him in a six-way tie as the 14th-best reliever in all of baseball, better than notable names like Craig Kimbrel (1.5), Brad Hand (1.3), Kyle Crick (1.0) Wade Davis (0.9), and Adam Cimber (0.7). Hand and Cimber were traded together for the #1 catching prospect in all of baseball at this year’s trade deadline.

The story of the Giants’ season was the woeful offense, but the team’s pitching sustained positive momentum throughout the season. They could pitch a little bit. Tony Watson was the one guy who could pitch a lot — and did — but, his Mr. Reliable act had the effect of convincing skeptics early in the season that maybe the team had fixed all of its problems in a single offseason. After all, if they could hold onto late-inning leads better, then they were likely to win more close games.

We know what ultimately happened — they had only 5 leads after August 31st — but Watson never diminished himself when the ship started sinking. He struck out 15 and walked only 1 in his final month of the season (although he was responsible for a blown lead and loss to the Rockies just to kick things off) and really zipped up a full season of being one of the Giants’ few bright spots.

ROLE ON THE 2018 TEAM: Essentially the setup man, but once Will Smith became the closer his role expanded a bit to be a late-innings lefty specialist, too. He was also a player who made it clear that the Giants could still identify good pitching and sign free agents to reasonable contracts equal to or less than their roles on the team. If Tony Watson were to have become a free agent after this season, he’d stand to earn far more than the $3.5-$4 million he’ll make next season (Sam Dyson made more than him this season, for instance).

Beyond the money, though, he was the first and longest-lasting relief-inducing reliever on the roster. He stymied rallies and set the Giants up for a lot more wins in the early months than we expected. Whenever he got into trouble, it was a tremendous surprise, and that’s because he was just really, really good.

ROLE ON THE 2019 TEAM: I mentioned before how his value was greater than Brad Hand and Adam Cimber’s and how both were traded for a top prospect — if he’s still on the roster to start the season, the new GM might depart from the team’s standard practice and move him before the trade deadline to get back an above average prospect. Tony Watson is almost too good for the Giants.

GRADE: A