When the Yankees needed pitching last offseason, they went all out and offered Cliff Lee a six-year contract (with a player option!) worth at least $132M. They still need pitching this offseason, but there’s no one on the open market worthy of that kind of commitment. With CC Sabathia re-signed to an extension, the best available free agent pitcher is C.J. Wilson, a left-hander that would help combat Yankee Stadium‘s cozy right field porch.
Joel Sherman has reported a number of times that the Yankees are not enamored with Wilson, and in fact one club official called the Rangers’ nominal ace a number four starter on a championship-caliber team. Despite that, you know we’re going to hear the two parties connected at some point this winter, it’s just the nature of the beast. On the first day of open free agency, let’s break down Wilson’s qualifications…
- Wilson’s first season in the rotation was solid, but he took major steps forward in 2011. His strikeout rate improved from 7.50 K/9 to 8.30 K/9, his swing-and-miss rate from 6.7% to 8.3%, and his walk rate from 4.10 BB/9 to 2.98 BB/9. That helped drop his xFIP from 4.06 to 3.41.
- A ground ball pitcher, Wilson has gotten batters to beat the ball into the ground either 49.2% or 49.3% of the time in five of the last six years. The one exception came in 2009, when his ground ball rate was 55.4%. Bonus points for cosistency, says Joe Morgan. All the grounders help Wilson keep the ball in the park; he’s allowed just 0.55 HR/9 with a measly 6.7% HR/FB ratio over the last two seasons, and that’s while pitching in a big-time hitters’ park.
- After throwing 228.1 IP in 2010 (regular season and playoffs), Wilson beefed that up to 251.1 IP in 2011. He responded well to the workload increase based on his fastball velocity, which jumped from 88-91 last year to 92-94 this year. Wilson throws three fastballs (two-seamer, four-seamer, cutter), a low-80’s slider, a low-80’s changeup, and a mid-70’s curve. They are six legit pitches, he’s used each more than 10% of the time as a starter.
- Wilson flat out annihilates lefties, even as a starter. Since the start of last season, he’s held same-side hitters to a measly .202/.277/.262 batting line with 97 strikeouts and 29 walks in 369 plate appearances. He’s not too shabby against righties either, holding them to a .231/.314/.350 line since the start of last year. For what it’s worth, he’s also got great career numbers against the Red Sox and Rays.
- Because Wilson has was a position player in college and a reliever for the vast majority of his first five years in the big leagues, his arm doesn’t have as many miles on it compared to most other 30-year-old starters (he’ll turn 31 in about two weeks).
- Although he’s been healthy these last two years, the early part of Wilson’s career was riddling with injury. He had Tommy John surgery back in 2003, missed the start of 2006 with a sore shoulder, missed basically all of Spring Training in 2008 with a sore elbow, missed the last two months of 2008 due to elbow surgery (bone spurs), and then dealt with blisters in 2009. Those are all arm problems and none of them are fluky, except maybe the blisters.
- Walks have been and probably will continue to be an issue. This year was the first time he ever posted a sub-3.60 BB/9 in a full Major League season, and he’s just one year removed from a league-leading 93 walks. His rates of 16.5 pitches per inning and 4.0 pitches per batter faced are among the ten highest in baseball over the last two seasons (min. 300 IP), so not exactly Mr. Efficient.
- There’s no denying that Wilson has been a very effective starter these last two seasons, but he just doesn’t have a track record in that role. Whatever team signs him would be betting that he can repeat that kind of production over that many innings for the next half-decade. That’s not to say he can’t do it, but the question still has to be asked.
- Wilson is a Type-A free agent and the Rangers will assuredly offer him arbitration, so whatever team signs him will forfeit their first round pick to Texas.
Many of you will point to Wilson’s second straight awful postseason showing as a negative, but I just can’t bring myself to put much stock into October numbers. It’s been 52.1 playoff innings and he’s got a 4.82 ERA with a 5.70 FIP. Andy Pettitte had a 5.68 ERA with a 5.84 FIP in his first 50.1 playoff innings. See what I mean? The poor postseason showing will likely affect Wilson’s price though, but I doubt it’ll be much. I still expect him to get something close to the A.J. Burnett and John Lackey contract, meaning five years and $82.5M.
Fittingly, I do find myself thinking about Wilson the same way I thought about John Lackey two years ago, at least in one sense. The Rangers can afford to keep him and they have a need for him, but we haven’t heard anything about them doing all they can to retain him. That makes me wonder what they know that other teams don’t. Obviously we haven’t seen how the Wilson sweepstakes will play out, but it’s still something I’ll be keeping an eye on. If Texas doesn’t make a major effort to retain him, I’d consider it a red flag.
On the surface, Wilson has everything the Yankees could possibly want in a starter. He’s left-handed, gets a ton of ground balls, misses bats, should be good for 200+ innings year-in and year-out … but I just can’t bring myself to it. The lack of a track record scares me, as does the pre-2011 control problems. All those arm injuries earlier in his career are a concern as well. As I said earlier, we’ve heard that the Yankees view Wilson as more of a mid-rotation guy, and that’s pretty much how I value him. Solid guy to have in the rotation, but not someone I’d bend over backwards to sign like Lee last winter.