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December 6, 2011

The BP First Take

Tuesday, December 6

by Daniel Rathman

Monday’s reports from the Winter Meetings shed light on the demands of the top two free-agent starting pitchers. C.J. Wilson is apparently still holding out hope for a six-year, $100 million deal. Mark Buehrle is pondering a few three-year offers in the $36-39 million range, and perhaps waiting for one of the teams to sweeten the pot or include a no-trade clause.

That raises a question: Given their respective demands, is there any scenario in which a team should ink Wilson before exhausting its options with Buehrle?

There are few similarities between Wilson and Buehrle besides their age—as hard as it is to believe, Wilson is just 20 months younger—and left-handedness. Wilson struck out 22.5 percent of the batters he faced last season, and the majority of the batted balls hit against him were grounders; Buehrle’s K/PA was just 12.7 percent, and his batted-ball profile was more balanced. Wilson consistently reaches the low 90s with his fastball; Buehrle is lucky to get out of Reagan’s first term. Wilson is a Tommy John survivor (2004) and has had a second elbow surgery to remove bone spurs (2008); Buehrle has no history of arm trouble.

In terms of value, there is no question that Wilson was the better pitcher in 2011, whether you prefer his 2.94 ERA, 3.28 FIP, or 3.6 WARP, to Buehrle’s 3.59 ERA, 4.02 FIP, or 2.4 WARP. Assuming Wilson can land a contract with an average annual salary of $16-17 million, teams will be paying about $3 million for 1.2 WARP per year, if you project similar performance for the lives of the deals.

While that difference is likely to stay well below the market rate, Wilson probably will not remain a 3.6-win pitcher through his age-36 season. Additionally, Buehrle’s track record offers far more certainty, as does the fact that he is likely to sign for at least two—and perhaps three—fewer years.

It’s fairly safe to project Buehrle for an average of 2.5 WARP in 2012-2014, and given the scarcity of low-risk pitchers on this year’s market, $12-13 million per year is a reasonable price to pay. Suppose that Wilson drops his demand for six years, and settles for a five-year deal worth $80 million—in other words, Burnett or Lackey money. To be worth $4.8 million per WARP (Buehrle’s going rate), Wilson would need to average 3.3 WARP over the duration of the deal. That’s in line with his 3.35 WARP average from 2010-2011, but his ability to maintain that level of performance through his age-35 season—even with limited mileage on his arm—is uncertain.

Based on those calculations, and the lessons learned from recent long-term pitcher contracts, most teams should prefer Buehrle to Wilson, particularly those who play in large ballparks. Wilson’s primary appeal over Buehrle is his ability to miss bats, so he is a superior option for poor fielding teams, especially if those woes are limited to the outfield.

The teams most often tied to Wilson at this point are the Nationals, Marlins, Red Sox, and—as of early Tuesday morning—the Angels. None of the four fit the criteria under which Wilson appears more appealing than Buehrle, and the Angels’ preference for Wilson is particularly odd given their pitcher-friendly stadium and fourth-ranked defensive efficiency.

 Until Buehrle has made his decision—which the aforementioned reports indicate could come in the next few days—there is really no reason for any of them to rush into a long-term commitment for Wilson.  

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

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