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November 18, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

A Ranger Comes to Town

by Jay Jaffe

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With CC Sabathia staying put, this winter's free-agent market for starting pitchers is a particularly thin one, no pun intended. Unlike last winter, there's no rotation ace equivalent of Cliff Lee, nor is there even a frontline starter who offers the track record that the 2009-2010 winter's belle of the ball, John Lackey, did—a reminder that big-ticket items carry big-time risks. The pitcher drawing the most interest is 31-year-old lefty C.J. Wilson, who has spent all of two seasons in the rotation, converting following a rocky tenure in the bullpen that included some time spent as a very hittable closer.

Those two seasons have been excellent ones. Wilson has topped the 200-inning plateau in both years, throwing a total of 427 1/3 innings with the AL's seventh-best ERA (3.14) despite the disadvantage of pitching half his games in hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. His 140 ERA+ in that time trails only Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, and Sabathia among AL pitchers. He's survived that ballpark by keeping the ball on the ground, not only posting the AL's lowest home-run rate (0.55 per nine) in 2010-2011, but also the second-highest double-play total (52, one behind Sabathia), and in 2011, the second-highest DP% as well. His strikeout rate over the two-year span is a hefty 7.9 per nine; he reached the 200-strikeout plateau this season. If there's concern about his performance as a starter, it's his walk rate; his 3.5 per nine over the span ranks as the 11th-highest among starters, though it fell from 4.1 in 2010 to 3.0 in 2011 even as his strikeout rate rose from 7.5 to 8.3. All told, his 3.28 FIP ranked seventh in the AL this past season, his 3.67 Fair Run Average and 4.2 WARP both 12th.

The other concern about Wilson is that while helping the Rangers to back-to-back World Series, his post-season performances have been subpar. Since throwing 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball in the second game of the 2010 AL Division Series against the Rays, he's managed just two quality starts out of eight, both in 2010. His record is 0-5 in that span, with a 5.48 ERA, but his troubles haven't been entirely his fault. He's gotten just 2.6 runs per game of support over that stretch, and of the 27 walks he's issued in 44 2/3 innings, six have been intentional. His 2011 post-season showing was particularly ugly, with a 5.79 ERA; every time he faltered, some national writerwould claim he was costing himself millions of dollars; Buster Olney went as high as $25-30 million.

From the early rumors circulating, that latter figure might not be far off, at least if we're simply talking about the gap between what Wilson wants (said to be as much as $120 million via a six-year deal) and what he'll get. Multiple sources in touch with various team officials appear confident that Wilson will receive at least a five-year deal, with money likely to surpass the $82.5 million "tragic number" both Lackey and A.J. Burnett received for their pacts. Never mind that the history of starter contracts that lie beyond those—Sabathia ($161 million for 2009-2015, then $122 million for 2012-2016), Johan Santana ($137.5 million), Barry Zito ($126 million), Mike Hampton ($121 million), Lee ($120 million), Kevin Brown ($105 million), Carlos Zambrano ($91.5 million)—is a mostly unhappy one. None of those pacts has been completed without major injury or loss of effectiveness, though Sabathia and Lee have yet to succumb to either fate. Such expenditures are dangerous territory, though one wonders whether Wilson's low career innings total (708 through his age-30 season) will work in his favor.

In any event, here's a rundown of the suitors who have kicked the tires on Wilson, ranked according to my best guess as to where he’s headed.

Marlins: Decked out in garish new threads and bragging about their new home (which has some garishness as well), the Marlins are playing the part of the nouveau riche, ostentatiously flashing around thick wads of bills in an attempt to make everyone forget their petty, cheapskate ways. They're rumored to have offered Jose Reyes $90 million for six years, and somewhere south of $200 million for Albert Pujols, and they've met with Bob Garber, Wilson's agent, as well. Coming off a 72-90 record and a last-place finish, they don't have the look of immediate contenders, though if they land one of those aforementioned big fish and get the healthy versions of Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson back, that could change in a hurry. The pursuits of Reyes and Pujols suggests both that Wilson is, at best, the Marlins' third priority, and that they're likely to be outbid by other suitors, making this an unlikely landing spot.

Red Sox: With Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz the only established starters under contract, the need for rotation help is there, but in the wake of their late-season collapse, the departures of Terry Francona and Theo Epstein appear to have left the organization in disarray. It already sounds as though new GM Ben Cherington has been undercut by the higher-ups when it comes to choosing a new skipper; at this point, you can expect Larry Lucchino to make him wear a “My Little Pony” backpack to the winter meetings. The Sox spent $165 million on payroll this past year, and already have $131 million committed to 12 players, not including their arbitration-eligible players, who include Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Alfredo Aceves. They still have holes in right field and DH, at least one of which is expected to require a major expenditure (David Ortiz, or perhaps Carlos Beltran). They've also got to replace departed closer Jonathan Papelbon, and while Daniel Bard is an obvious closer in waiting, their interest in Heath Bell and Ryan Madson suggests another significant expenditure ahead. With $106 million committed for 2013, and another $94 million committed for 2014, the Sox may be headed toward the type of payroll inflexibility problems that the Yankees face, so the best guess here is that they won't be players for Wilson.

Blue Jays: Coming off an 81-81 season in which they spent just over $70 million on payroll, the Jays are believed to have significant money to spend; they have around $44 million committed to eight players, with Brandon Morrow, Colby Rasmus, Jesse Litsch, Casey Janssen and others due raises via arbitration. Theoretically, they could make a run at either Pujols or Prince Fielder, but thus far they have yet to be linked to either. Their rotation needs are a much higher priority, given that their starters' 4.55 ERA ranked 11th in the league, their 50 percent quality-start rate 10th. They're said to have interest in Wilson, but they could also be in on Japanese hurler Yu Darvish if he posts, or opt to upgrade through trades. Or they could hang back and show more patience with the likes of Morrow, Kyle Drabek, and Brett Cecil, all of whom disappointed in 2011 but appear to have the tools to succeed.

Nationals: Last winter's Jayson Werth signing left no doubt that the Nationals are willing to open their checkbooks, and while that particular deal didn't exactly pay off in its first year, the return of Stephen Strasburg, the emergence of youngsters like Jordan Zimmermann, Wilson Ramos, and Danny Espinosa, and the pending arrival of Bryce Harper make it clear that this is a team whose trend arrow points upward. Mike Rizzo is said to have met with Garber, who represents both Wilson and Roy Oswalt. Given that both pitchers have spent the entirety of their careers in the same leagues from where they sprung, the NL-savvy Oswalt may interest the Nats more, but from a long-term standpoint, the younger, healthier Wilson makes far more sense given Oswalt’s age (34) and history of back woes.

Angels: Given Wilson's Southern California roots and his familiarity with the AL West, Anaheim makes sense as a destination, and while the Angels have extra incentive to poach a key player from their rivals, this is hardly a slam-dunk. The Halos have one of the game’s top front threes in Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana, and while new GM Jerry DiPoto isn't opposed to further fortifications, the Angels have some payroll concerns. The team spent a record $142 million in 2011—our figures put them even higher, with the game's fourth-highest payroll—but are expected to come in around $130-140 million in 2012. While they'll shed $23.4 million worth of dead weight from the contracts of Scott Kazmir and Gary Matthews Jr., they've got nearly $100 million committed to just nine players for 2012, and significant raises due Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo, and even (gack) Jeff Mathis, leaving DiPoto little room to work with. It's been suggested that if the Halos sign Wilson they could trade Santana for offensive help, but that would cost them both extra money (the latter will make $11.2 million for 2012, with a $13 million option for 2013) and possibly a draft pick, depending upon how the new Collective Bargaining Agreement shakes out. Given DiPoto's stated priorities of improving the bullpen depth, the team's on-base percentage, and the catching (oh, irony), it's more likely they go after a lower-cost innings eater than a big-ticket item like Wilson.

Yankees: Even with Sabathia back in the fold, the Yankees still have the need for another frontline starter in front of Ivan Nova, Burnett, and Phil Hughes. With no other expensive targets to chase—except possibly Darvish—and little appetite to trade Jesus Montero or Manny Banuelos in a package for a suitable alternative, it's not difficult to see Brian Cashman deciding that Wilson makes the most sense for the Yankees. Indeed, the word is that after an initial meeting between Cashman and agent Bob Garber at the general managers' meetings in Milwaukee, the Yanks have invited Garber and Wilson to meet with team officials in New York. Unlike Lee’s squeamishness about New York, there's far less of a cultural divide needed to bridge the gap with Wilson; he lived in Manhattan last offseason.

Rangers: Many a free agent bolts his team because he wants a chance to win, but given that the Rangers have taken the last two AL pennants, that argument doesn't apply here. Furthermore, it appears to be a sure thing that the Rangers will increase their payroll significantly beyond the $93 million they spent last year. They have around $70 million committed to nine players including Leonys Martins, with significant raises due the arbitration-eligible Mike Napoli, Nelson Cruz, Mike Adams, David Murphy, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and more; BP contributor Joey Matschulat estimates that bunch will cost another $30 million. Retaining Wilson could push their payroll into the $120 million range, and while their big TV contract probably allows them that luxury, the signals as to their willingness to do so are mixed, particularly given team president Nolan Ryan's philosophical opposition to lengthy deals for starters. Still, the hunch here is that given how close they’ve come to winning in the past two years, the urge to keep the band together will win out, and Wilson will stay put.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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