Following a trade to Texas that many felt favored the Rangers, Brad Wilkerson has struggled to stay both healthy and productive for two years. Now a free agent, it’s tough to gage just how much interest there will be in him given his recent problems. Wilkerson could be a potentially productive and low cost alternative in the outfield for many teams who won’t be able to afford the higher priced options this winter though.
Stephen Bradley Wilkerson attended the University of Florida, where he put together a nifty career as a two-way player. Not only did he manage to slug well over .700 two years in a row, but he also put together a 26-11 record as a pitcher over three seasons; thanks in part to Wilkerson’s two-way skills, the Gators made the College World Series in 1996 and 1998. Wilkerson also played for the national junior team in 1995, where he threw a three-hit shutout in the gold medal game while also managing to hit .360 with three home runs in the series.
A two-time All-American, Wilkerson was selected by the Montreal Expos in the first round of the 1998 amateur entry draft; he was the 33rd pick overall. He did not sign until the end of August, so he waited until 1999 to make his professional debut at Double-A Harrisburg, a pretty bold, risky assignment for a player coming straight from playing college ball. Perhaps predictably, the 22-year-old struggled, but still posted a solid effort:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 1999 Harrisburg(AA) 422 .235/.372/.355 32% .120 24 16.8% 19.1%
Wilkerson’s walk rates are impressive, but he also struck out often, and his power output resembled a middle infielder’s. Baseball Prospectus 2000 detailed the issues the Expos organization had with their recent first-rounder:
Considering he was a supplemental first rounder from the 1998 draft batting with wood for the first time, the Expos were daring in sending him directly to Double-A. He’s got that exaggerated upright uppercut swing that Will Clark likes to show off, but the organization’s fussing that he’s either trying to hit home runs or he’s too passive at the plate. A solid prospect, but already behind [Pete] Bergeron and [Milton] Bradley in the fight for the two open outfield spots, and that’s only if [Rondell] White is elsewhere.
Sometimes players with high walk rates in the minors are not displaying a great eye or excellent pitch recognition, but are indeed too passive; considering that Wilkerson walked 88 times while reaching the century mark in punchouts, this came up in evaluations of him at the time. A .290 BABIP didn’t help his low batting average any either. Happily, Wilkerson’s 2000 season helped put some of these fears to rest:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2000 Harrisburg(AA) 229 .336/.442/.590 57% .254 38 15.1% 13.6% 2000 Ottawa(AAA) 212 .250/.387/.481 45% .231 12 17.2% 23.0%
His power blossomed at Harrisburg in a repeat of the level. His numbers dipped at Ottawa after a promotion, with his strikeout rate climbing almost 10 percent and his BABIP falling to a below-average .293. Overall, this was a great step forward from his poor 1999 debut, and his numbers at Ottawa were still nifty. Wilkerson also played for Team USA in the Sydney Olympics, winning a gold medal for his efforts, as Baseball Prospectus 2001 noted:
Talk about nice problems to have: you’ve sent away Rondell White and you still have one good young outfielder too many? After plenty of people whined that Brad Wilkerson was too patient or too home run-oriented, Wilkerson smacked nearly 70 extra-base hits between Harrisburg and Ottawa. Now, nobody in the organization is worrying that 87 walks means something bad. The starting center fielder for Team USA in the Olympics, he’s got an arm good enough for right field but will settle for a crack at left field in 2001. There’s big-time power to come from his uppercut stroke.
Wilkerson wasn’t the best defender in center, but the fact that he could play there on occasion without embarrassing himself too much helped his value. Despite requiring off-season surgery, Baseball America rated Wilkerson as the third-best prospect in an Expos’ organization that included Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, Brian Schneider, and Cliff Lee:
… Wilkerson tried to play in the Arizona Fall League but succumbed to shoulder pain. He had surgery to repair the labrum and rotator cuff in his left shoulder in December and was expected to miss spring training. Assuming a full recovery, he has the classic tools of a right fielder. He has a smooth, compact swing from the left side, with outstanding bat speed and extension that should enable him to hit with above-average power. He’s disciplined at the plate. He’s a solid corner outfielder with a strong arm and average speed. Wilkerson’s troubles two years ago were a blessing in disguise. He realized he needed to improve and entered 2000 in much better condition. He lacks the speed to play center, and with right field blocked by Vladimir Guerrero, Wilkerson could be bound for left or first base in Montreal.
Following a very short rehab stint in the Florida State League, Wilkerson returned to Triple-A for 69 games before earning a promotion to Montreal:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2001 Ottawa(AAA) 233 .270/.423/.468 35% .198 10 20.0% 22.7% 2001 Montreal(MLB) 117 .205/.304/.325 42% .120 9 12.7% 35.0%
Although his numbers at Ottawa were impressive, the ever-increasing strikeout rates were not a good sign, and serve as a warning for players of Wilkerson’s ilk. Despite a .333 BABIP, thanks to all the strikeouts he hit just .270. This problem came up during his short stint at Montreal as well, where he failed to hit for the power he was known for in the minors while striking out at a dizzying rate. Given the delay in Wilkerson catching up to the competition after a promotion, this wasn’t anything to worry about, but the Expos sent Wilkerson back to Triple-A.
Even with those struggles, Baseball America moved Wilkerson up to the second slot on their organizational list for the 2002 season:
…Wilkerson missed the first month of the 2001 season after surgery on his left shoulder the previous December. Promoted to Montreal in early July, he struggled mightily and was sent back to Triple-A six weeks later. He has a fluid swing with good extension, impressive plate coverage, opposite-field power and an advanced understanding of the strike zone. He makes adjustments and uses the entire field. He’s a relentless defensive player with an average but accurate arm…Wilkerson’s difficulties in the majors persuaded the Expos to let him go back to using the high leg kick he employed in college. He’s beginning to cover up holes on the inner half of the plate.
It’s those little final adjustments to a player’s swing and approach at the plate that can often make or break a player’s transition to the majors from the minors. We’ve seen with players like Matt Holliday or Carlos Pena that tremendous amounts of power potential do not always immediately translate into production, and given Wilkerson’s struggles with making contact, it was clear he needed to make a few final tweaks in order to succeed at the highest level. The progress he made covering up holes on the inner half of the plate was one of those necessary tweaks. Baseball Prospectus 2003 felt Wilkerson was capable of righting himself if given the chance:
Having sent Rondell White and Milton Bradley packing, the Expos have placed all of their outfield eggs in Brad Wilkerson’s basket. Shoulder surgery kept Wilkerson out of action until mid-May, delaying his Montreal debut until the All-Star break. Although he struggled after arriving, he continued to control the strike zone-making him something of an anomaly in this organization. Wilkerson has shown that he needs time to gather himself at each new level, so Torborg must stick with him if he gets off to a slow start. Come the summer solstice, both will be reaping the benefits of patience.
Given his chance to start and succeed by Expos, Wilkerson responded with two very similar campaigns:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2002 Montreal(MLB) 507 .266/.370/.469 41% .203 35 13.8% 31.8% 2003 Montreal(MLB) 504 .268/.380/.464 42% .196 38 15.0% 30.8%
The strikeout rates kept his batting average down both years despite BABIP marks of .353 and .352 respectively, but he was very productive thanks to his combination of power and patience. PECOTA had forecasted a .266/.371/.465 line for Wilkerson in 2003, not very far off from his actual performance. However, the high strikeout rate and BABIP from those two years put Wilkerson in a precarious situation-if his BABIP is not well above the league average, he can have a difficult time succeeding. Thanks to lofty liner rates-more on that later-this wasn’t an issue for Wilkerson earlier in the decade.
In 2004 we would see a jump in Wilkerson’s homer performance and a drop in his strikeout rate of roughly four percent-this would help offset a 58 point drop in his BABIP:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2004 Montreal(MLB) 572 .255/.374/.498 50% .243 41 15.6% 26.6%
Wilkerson hit more homers simply by hitting more flyballs his last season as an Expo, and this resulted in the most productive season of his career. The drop in strikeouts was a positive sign in his age-27 season, and he was able to manage that without sacrificing walks.
Wilkerson was the bright light of the franchise this year, hitting for great power and creating further offense with bushels of walks. Even afflicted with a sore knee and a tight hamstring, his power took a step up. His health is a continuing concern, as every year seems to bring a couple things that ail him. And yet he hits like crazy.
It turns out that this concern was valid, as Wilkerson was seemingly never healthy during the 2005 season, only this time he did not hit well:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2005 Washington(MLB) 565 .248/.351/.405 43% .158 49 12.9% 26.0%
Some may want to point at RFK Stadium for Wilkerson’s power issues in 2005, but the problems had more to do with Wilkerson himself than any external factor. Just at home, Wilkerson flew out 82 times, with a significant number of those outs coming in shallow and medium left field, as seen in this chart from MLB.com:
There was also a slight drop in his walk rate, though the split between his average and on-base was still significant. Even though he played in 148 games, the injuries were a factor, taking their toll on Wilkerson’s production.
His first year as a Nat was also his only one, as he was dealt to the Rangers along with Terrmel Sledge and Armando Galarraga for Alfonso Soriano. At the time, the deal was seen as a total steal for the Rangers, but the combination of Soriano’s resurgence and Wilkerson’s injury issues made that not at all the case:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2006 Texas(MLB) 320 .222/.306/.422 45% .200 17 10.4% 36.3% 2007 Texas(MLB) 338 .234/.319/.467 48% .234 18 11.3% 31.7%
Any progress on his command of the strike zone was lost, and his walk percentage, though still useful, lost its superhero element by dropping into the realm of merely mortal walk-drawing. The power was still there-in fact, it was just as present as in 2004-but durability and consistent contact were nowhere to be found. Wilkerson tried to play through a shoulder injury for most of 2006 before succumbing to another surgery late, and though he was more productive in 2007, he managed to land on the DL again, this time thanks to his hamstring.
Now a free agent, what can we expect from Wilkerson going forward? Looking at his batted-ball data gives us an indication of just what kind of hitter Wilkerson is:
Year P/PA FB% LINEDR% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2002 4.3 40.9% 20.6% 38.6% 9.9% 14.2% .353 .326 -.027 2003 4.4 36.0% 24.3% 39.7% 8.7% 15.1% .352 .363 +.011 2004 4.3 47.5% 21.8% 30.7% 8.6% 16.2% .294 .338 +.044 2005 4.2 45.0% 24.0% 31.0% 7.5% 5.9% .317 .360 +.043 2006 4.2 49.5% 15.2% 35.3% 5.9% 14.9% .296 .272 -.024 2007 4.3 44.8% 16.5% 38.7% 6.8% 19.4% .280 .285 +.005
Despite some very high line-drive rates, Wilkerson’s BABIP often jumps around and misses the expected mark due to his flyball and strikeout numbers. Hitting 24 percent of your batted balls for liners should result in a high batting average, but as we saw in his hit chart earlier, that becomes near impossible when you fly out to the shallow part of the outfield as often as he did.
Wilkerson has also made the shift from an extreme line-drive hitter with high flyball rates to an extreme flyball hitter with more grounders than before. The extra flyballs work in a power environment like Arlington, but depending on where he signs, he may be better off trying to get back to being a line-drive hitter who collects doubles, walks and the occasional homer, as a way of trying to combat strikeout rates that have been getting worse as he ages. Hitting 19 percent of your flyballs for homers is swell when you whack as many flyballs as Wilkerson does, but only managing a line of .234/.319/.467 makes you a below-average corner outfielder, first baseman, or DH, the positions Wilkerson is capable of filling.
Given the paucity of talent in this winter’s free agent market, combined with the amount of money floating around MLB these days, Wilkerson may secure himself a solid payday, though he should still be a bargain relative to some of his peers. He is a player worth taking a flier on, and if a team’s hitting coach is able to tweak him just enough, he may once again be an asset on offense, though not a serious force.