It’s been a week and a half since the Rangers suffered their final defeat of 2011, and the cries for change have begun in earnest. Fans seem to expect some combination of Yu Darvish, Prince Fielder, Logan Morrison and Martin Perez to fix what ails the Rangers.
What people may forget is that very little ails the Rangers – and that contact information for their most logical free agent target should still linger in Jon Daniels’ phone.
Let’s start with a disclaimer: C.J. Wilson was terrible throughout the postseason. He might be the only person on earth who wouldn’t admit to that fact. Wilson posted a 5.79 ERA throughout three playoff series and walked an unsightly 25 (five intentionally) while only striking out 20 in the ALCS and World Series.
Despite all that, though, Wilson is a top of the rotation pitcher. He combines a stellar groundball rate (which leads to double plays and limits home runs) with legitimate swing-and-miss stuff and great sequencing which lead to the first 200-strikeout season by a Rangers pitcher since 1991. His command has progressed from ‘unacceptable’ (12.6% walk rate, 2008) to ‘frustrating’ (10.9%, 2010) to ‘manageable’ (8.1%, 2011).
Wilson is also one of the only pitchers to showcase an ability to suppress home runs while pitching half his games in Arlington. Since 2009, he has the absolute lowest home run rate in all of baseball. He’s somehow accomplished this while pitching half his games in MLB’s 2nd most severely home run-prone park. Wilson is as good a fit for Arlington as any pitcher in baseball; based on his peripherals, he does not seem at all affected by throwing in a bandbox. Here is what might be the craziest look at his success: Wilson’s 2.94 ERA in 2011 was the lowest by any Rangers starter since 1991, when Nolan Ryan posted a 2.91. If you eliminate that season, you’d have to go back to Greg Harris’ 1986 campaign. And the kicker:
Wilson’s ERA is .38 lower than the next pitcher down since 1991. The closest any Rangers starter has come to his 2011 campaign was 1992 Kevin Brown, whose 3.32 ERA pales in comparison.
Let’s take a look at his performance relative to the rest of the league. By the prism of pure value, Wilson has been excellent. Fangraphs (which accounts for things like park factors and peripherals) attributed him with 5.9 Wins over a replacement player for this year, placing him 7th among all pitchers. Baseball-Reference, whose calculations are more simple (E.R.A and Innings) credited Wilson with 5 wins, the 13th highest mark of any pitcher. In 2010, he was 17th on Fangraphs’ rankings, 18th on Baseball-Reference’s list.
Durability should never be taken for granted, especially when pitchers are concerned. But aside from some issues early in his career (including Tommy John surgery), Wilson has been the picture of health. During the last two years, he has been a bona fide workhorse, making 67 starts and throwing 427.1 innings. But as is the case with any soon-to-be-31-year old pitcher, he will see a dropoff in his stuff over the coming years. How will Wilson cope with the war against Father Time?
Wilson has a very deep repertoire of pitches and knows how to use them. When his feel for a pitch is off, he can compensate by relying on his other offerings, a rare luxury Rangers fans wouldn’t get to experience with someone like Neftali Feliz or Alexi Ogando in the rotation. His fastball is by no means elite, but it is more than sufficient for a left-handed starter with as much variation as he can present. While a decline in velocity would hurt Wilson, he could likely cope with it better than most.
He stays in excellent shape and remains one of the leading trailblazers among players, always searching for an edge on the competition, whether it entails cryotherapy or writing his own personalized scouting reports for every opposing hitter.
Of any 30-year old pitcher in baseball, Wilson may be the most likely to continue improving, if only because of his incredible approach to the game and his newness to starting. Unless a catastrophic injury enters the equation (and there are no indications one is on the way), it would be tough to envision Wilson’s career being derailed like some recent free agent signees.
It’s somewhat shocking that Wilson isn’t getting more press as a premier free agent target. Pitchers of his caliber don’t hit the market on a regular basis. The most common comparisons of his expected payday are A.J. Burnett and John Lackey, who signed identical 5 year, $82.5 Million contracts.But Wilson’s last two seasons are superior to those put on by Burnett and Lackey before they became available, and he’s slightly younger than either one. Add in the constant inflation of MLB’s free-agent market, and one would think Wilson could be due for a 9-figure payday.
But whether it’s concern about his commitment to baseball (Wilson’s extracurricular hobbies are too numerous to be listed) or serious questions about his showing throughout the 2011 playoffs, most guesses don’t see Wilson landing near that area.
ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Wilson as the 8th best free agent in the class, below limited, older players in Jimmy Rollins, Mark Buehrle and Aramis Ramirez and 5 spots shy of Japanese phenom Yu Darvish (more to come on him later this week). Yahoo’s Jeff Passan tabbed him at #5, 2 spots behind Darvish. Fangraphs readers thought he would be the fourth-best compensated domestic player on the market, predicting 5 years at 77.5, the sort of payday a below-average #2 starter might command.
Obviously, we’re using these rankings because we’re not privy to the ones made up by Rangers GM Jon Daniels, Yankees GM Brian Cashman, or Nationals GM Mike Rizzo. But if this is what executives across baseball think of Wilson, he could be a bargain.
Here’s some perspective: Fangraphs assigns a dollar value to players’ seasons based on their Wins Above Replacement, correlated against what free agents usually make per win contributed. Over the last two seasons, Wilson has been worth $18.5 Million and $26.5 Million. He’s by no means a sure bet to replicate those numbers – players’ best seasons almost always come before they hit free agency. But he is a safer bet than any pitcher on the free agency market right now – even Yu Darvish, who will likely command significantly more once his posting fee is factored in.
Yes, our most recent memories of Wilson are bitter ones. No, we can’t account for Wilson deciding he loves hitting too much to return to the American League (A legitimate possibility – read the blog post he wrote after tripling in a mundane game against the lowly Astros). And yes, he is self-obsessed and difficult to relate to. But Wilson is a truly excellent pitcher and it would be a shame to lose him.
The fact that most people are writing him off as a goner is as puzzling as anything I’ve encountered in this area other than the relentless bagging on Ian Kinsler. Because unless some team makes C.J. Wilson the ‘Godfather’ proposal (an offer he can’t refuse and the Rangers shouldn't top) or the Rangers trade for an absolute superstar like Clayton Kershaw, C.J. Wilson should be starting against the White Sox on April 6, 2012.