SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Tony Watson moved to the top rung of the ladder, but the perch he left went unfilled.
Instead, he can look far below and watch a couple dozen try to get a grip on a slippery bar.
Watson was a survivor of an offseason that featured some veteran exodus (Madison Bumgarner, Will Smith, Stephen Vogt and Kevin Pillar). Coming off a fractured wrist and unsure about a dicey free-agent market, the 34-year-old opted in to the final season of his deal, becoming the last dependable piece of a bullpen (along, to a lesser extent, with Trevor Gott) that began getting disassembled last trade deadline.
Gone are Mark Melancon, Sam Dyson, Drew Pomeranz and Derek Holland. Gone, to Atlanta, is the All-Star closer Smith, whom Watson tried to persuade to stay, “but who gets a three-year deal with their hometown team?”
Remaining is Hopes and Watson. Inexperienced if intriguing arms like Tyler Rogers and Sam Coonrod; experienced if unknown arms like Trevor Cahill and Jerry Blevins. And a former closer who, while he does not own that title again, is the heavy favorite to reclaim it.
“No matter what inning, I’m going to pitch my inning. Mentality-wise and leadership-wise, I’m going to take on that role as closer for the group and be the leader,” Watson told KNBR on Thursday at Scottsdale Stadium. “We don’t have a ton of experienced guys like we did last year. Coming into the spring last year, we had a bunch of guys that had closed in the past in other places. This year we’ve got a lot of really good young arms that a lot of people saw in September and August. Earned their stripes a little bit, had some success, had some failure.”
Watson has accepted the mantle of leader, if not closer just yet. The lefty hasn’t recorded a save since 2017, when he lost the job with the Pirates that he had won the previous season. Since, he’s been a highly effective setup man, the last two seasons with the Giants.
Last year ended unceremoniously — he got blistered for 10 runs in 1 2/3 innings in mid-August, skewing a season ERA that would finish at 4.17, before diving to make a tag in St. Louis on Sept. 4 and hitting the dirt with a fractured wrist.
The wrist has healed, and after a quiet offseason in Sarasota, where he calls home, Watson has a new role with an evolving team.
“For me to be here and help those guys through [the year] — they’re going to ask questions, they are going to go through tough times,” said Watson, entering his 10th season, and the millionth to admit this camp is a different one for him. “I’ve had a lot of experiences with those times, too. You just want to help them map your way through a 162-game season. For me to have that closer mentality, that mindset, is something I’m looking forward to.”