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August 25, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

The Jered Weaver Ripple Effect

by Joey Matschulat

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One week ago, I labeled Jered Weaver's looming post-2012 eligibility for free agency as one of several key threats to the Angels' five-year competitive window. Turns out it took only a couple of days for that threat to end up completely neutralized because Weaver (much to the dismay of the AL West's other denizens) will play out each of his next five seasons in an Angels uniform, having consented to a five-year, $85 million deal that most neutral observers seem to regard as a win-win pact for player and team alike. Ben Lindbergh already analyzed the direct implications of the contract in exhaustive detail, and I can't think of much to add on that front that wouldn't be redundant, so this obviously isn't going to be an article dedicated solely to Jered Weaver.

My only addition would be this: since the deal's announcement, Weaver's drawn great praise from some circles for choosing comfort and loyalty to the Angels organization over the largest guaranteed dollar amount. I appreciate that, and I do find his choice and willingness to eschew the extraction of every last possible dollar at least somewhat commendable. But at the same time, I've stumbled upon some comments from people in those same circles who have used the Weaver extension as a jumping-off point to snipe at those professional athletes who do gun for deals promising the most money.

I may be stranded out on an island here (though I suspect I'm not), but I have a really difficult time condemning ballplayers of any caliber for attempting to maximize their wages during their relatively few prime earning years. Some people term such an approach "greedy," but let's not overlook the facts that (a) few ballplayers are as tightly bonded to their original ballclub as Weaver is (and thus have less incentive to sign such team-friendly deals) and (b) after agents, tax men, and other money-sapping parties take their respective cuts, that huge-dollar contract doesn't impart nearly as much financial benefit to the player himself as the total value would suggest.

What I am particularly interested in, however, is the potential for Weaver's newly minted contract creating a sort of ripple effect for other starting pitchers eyeing free agency. In Texas, at least, the news has ignited a new round of fervent speculation as to what C.J. Wilson, the crown jewel of the Rangers' starting rotation, could/should be in line to secure in free agency during the 2011-12 off-season. One of the working theories currently out there is that Weaver's pact could "set the market" on what Wilson can hope to attain dollar-wise, since Weaver is the superior talent and is going to gross less money over the life of his five-year deal than what many had come to expect Wilson would pull down.

A couple of problems with this theory expose themselves immediately, however: first, and perhaps most obviously, the Angels are paying not for five non-controlled years but instead for one arbitration-controlled year and four non-controlled years. As a current $7.4 million earner in his penultimate season of arbitration eligibility, Weaver was already due to be in line for something in the vicinity of $12-13 million next season, leaving the outstanding balance of the deal at $72 million over four years -- or an average annual value of $18 million per year over those four non-controlled years, which would be right in line with the string of five-year, $90 million projections for Wilson that have proliferated throughout the blogosphere over the last few months. Clearly, $85 million isn't going to serve as a magical line of demarcation beyond which no team will dare to venture on Wilson.

And before anyone fixates too closely on the idea that Wilson shouldn't even be in line for an AAV of $18 million per year on the basis of a better-pitching Weaver already being in line to bank that kind of money for his non-controlled years, consider a couple of things: (a) Weaver freely acknowledged that he signed a below-market deal and that he may have left a considerable amount of money on the table, and (b) the Angels are assuming a bit of additional risk here in that they're not committing to pay for Weaver's non-controlled years immediately before those years begin, but instead are committing more than a year in advance. In a worst-case scenario where Weaver is grounded by injury or completely falls apart next season, the Angels will be on the hook for those post-2012 seasons no matter what; in an alternate reality where this deal doesn't happen, though, the Angels would have been able to walk away from Weaver after the 2012 season with relative impunity, or at least been able to pay far, far less to retain his rights.

Of course, there's still considerable debate as to whether the Rangers should actually be that team willing to drop the most coin on Wilson, whose journey from homegrown fifth-rounder to minor league fast-riser to Tommy John recipient to volatile relief pitcher to front-line starter—and every fascinating little side plot in between—is more than enough to fill an extended biography. On the one hand, the Rangers have their own collection of raise-demanding players coming up (e.g. Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, etc.), and have been burned multiple times by enormous commitments to starting pitchers in the past.

Texas could conceivably let Wilson walk, net the two compensatory draft picks, use the cost savings to help fund the impending raises of their current talent, and trust that some combination of Colby Lewis, Alexi Ogando, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Scott Feldman, Neftali Feliz, Eric Hurley, and the high-upside minor league duo of Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez can take them as far as they want to go. Alternatively, Texas could go the gambler's route and center their off-season plan around an enormous sealed bid on Yu Darvish, should he end up being posted by the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.

On the other hand, Wilson can stake a justifiable claim to being one of the 15 best starting pitchers in baseball right now, as he ranks 10th in fWAR (9.2) and 14th in bWAR (8.2) among all qualifying pitchers since Opening Day last year and has been trending in exactly the right direction, slashing both his ERA (3.35 last year to 3.08 this year) and FIP (3.56 to 3.07) despite setbacks in his BABIP (.266 to .290) and left-on-base percentage (72.4% to 71.1%) thanks to some rather significant improvements in his strikeout (7.5 K/9 to 8.1 K/9) and walk (4.1 BB/9 to 3.0 BB/9) rates. He brings it with a wide array of very effective pitches that he throws with strong command, takes an extremely cerebral approach to pitching, is very keen on good conditioning, has a relatively clean injury history, and admits to probably being younger than his current age (31 in November) in "a lot of ways," since his straight-edge lifestyle strips the frightening risk factors tied to alcohol and drug usage out of the list of long-term concerns. He has also expressed some desire to remain in Texas, though obviously not to the extent that Jered Weaver did with Anaheim.

In a winter market where Wilson figures to be the hottest starting pitching commodity (assuming that no other serious suitors emerge for C.C. Sabathia's services beyond the Yankees) and in a tier positioned comfortably above that of the next tier down (occupied by the likes of Chris Carpenter and Edwin Jackson), Wilson could find himself in five-year, $100 million territory. This past winter, the Rangers were willing to go as far as six years, $138 million (albeit with a significant deferred-money component) with a seventh-year option worth $23 million on Cliff Lee and allegedly would have beaten out the Phillies had they made that option year guaranteed. They balked, Lee walked away, and now Texas is down to a single No. 1-caliber pitcher in the present.

My own baseless guess is that the Rangers will cave to Wilson's demands and drop $90-95 million to ensure his long-term presence (and walk away if it requires $100-plus million), but general manager Jon Daniels and his cabinet of advisors may be the most unpredictable and creative bunch in the AL West (if not the entire American League), so take that guess with an entire salt mine. Granted, Wilson and the Rangers have far more pressing concerns at the moment than contractual matters—such as cauterizing the bleeding of a divisional lead that has slipped from 7.0 games to just 2.5 games in less than a week—but once the battles have ended and the dust has settled, Wilson will stand tall as one of the AL West's most significant off-season storylines, and that storyline is already working itself into the middle of a heated divisional race.

Related Content:  Jered Weaver,  Year Of The Injury

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