It seems irresponsible to think about it now, with the Rangers entrenched in the American League West playoff race, but the front office has its hands full with the upcoming free agency of top-of-the-rotation-pitcher C.J. Wilson.
Almost one year removed from losing out on the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, Jon Daniels and company will find themselves in a familiar situation in the off-season. The bottom line is that Wilson is going to get paid. The question is whether the Rangers should commit to a long-term deal with their ace.
Wilson, who turns 31 in November, is facing free agency for the first time in his career, and it comes at a great time. Unless CC Sabathia chooses to opt out of his contract with the New York Yankees, Wilson will be the best starting pitcher on the market.
After failing to establish himself as a starter early in his career, Wilson transformed himself from a bullpen mainstay to a top of the rotation pitcher in 2010. Wilson logged 204 innings in 2010 and made all 33 starts, despite his previous high inning mark being the previous year’s 73 2/3. In the Rangers’ 2010 postseason run Wilson flew under the radar due to the team’s acquisition of Cliff Lee and an impressive playoff run by right hander Colby Lewis.
Wilson can be a polarizing figure. He’s the quirky California surfer dude. He’s the straight edge racer. He embraced social media before anyone else in the organization. In the past, he made some fairly immature comments to the media which upset a few of the team’s veterans. He’s gimmicky, he’s personable, and he’s just a little cocky.
What sometimes goes unnoticed is Wilson's work ethic from a physical and mental standpoint. One might have expected a bit of a regression from Wilson after his 2010 workload, but Wilson is on pace to surpass last year’s regular season innings pitched mark in his next start. He’s raised his K/9 rate to 8 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. He’s lowered his walk rate drastically, and he’s carried the load for a young Rangers starting staff, once again making every scheduled start.
His endurance is directly related to his emphasis on staying healthy and working out harder than anyone. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to make the trip out to Surprise each March, you know C.J. stands out from the crowd in terms of conditioning.
It’s a bit of a cliché to say that one benefit of acquiring someone like a Cliff Lee is the learning experience it creates for younger players. But it absolutely applied in this case. Every time you saw Cliff Lee in the dugout, it seemed like Wilson was right by his side. Lee, known as the ultimate creature of habit, always jogs off the mound to the dugout after each inning. Not too long after Lee was acquired, Wilson could also be found gliding off the field after each inning of work.
C.J. understands the game, but takes a lot of pride in studying the art of pitching in a different manner. Like Lee, Wilson does not blow you away with a mid-90’s fastball. Instead he’ll use an array of average to above average pitches, relying more on location and movement.
It wasn’t until about a month ago that I changed my mind on how the Rangers should go about pursuing Wilson in the off season. Before the change of heart I felt re-signing C.J. was a bad idea and ultimately somewhat of a lost cause, due to a couple of arguments which have made the rounds.
Case #1: “C.J. Wilson’s in love with California.”
This one has very little substance aside from the fact that he’s gone on record saying that he likes the West Coast. He’s also a big fan of the East Coast, as well as Texas. That argument can also be debunked by a quick look at the available California teams. San Diego and Oakland won’t make that kind of a free agent splash, San Francisco has tons of pitching and a high payroll already, and the Dodgers are bankrupt. That leaves us with the Angels.
The Rangers’ current archrival already boasts a huge payroll, but has not shied from spending money in the past. Although they were gun shy on making any second half deals to improve their offense or bullpen, the Angels did sign Ace starter Jered Weaver to a five year contract extension worth around 85 million dollars. This deal is seen as a temporary market setter for what someone like Wilson would make, even though Wilson’s impending playoff performance will likely move the needle away from that figure.
Weaver is two years younger than Wilson, but has already eclipsed the 1,100 innings pitched mark for his career. Wilson is on the cusp of 700 innings and throws from a delivery which doesn’t seem nearly as violent. Would the Angels make a run at C.J. Wilson? I would be surprised if they aren’t at least interested.
Case #2: “C.J. Wilson’s in love with hitting."
Some believe that Wilson will have a strong preference for the National League just because he’s giddy about coming to the plate. It seems simplistic, but considering his level of excitement toward that facet of interleague play, I wouldn’t put it past him. The problem is that I can’t see many National League suitors for Wilson.
Look ahead. It’s the week before Christmas and decision time is looming. New York, Boston, LAA, and maybe even the fabled Mystery Team™ have shown interest and a bidding war is underway. How high do you go? How long do you go? Nolan Ryan made it clear last year that 6 and 7 year contracts are not his thing, especially for pitchers in their 30’s. The thing that needs to be remembered as that Wilson has the workload of a 27 or 28 year old. Combine that with his freakish workout habits, his continuing development, pride in studying the art of pitching and the fact that he’s a home grown talent who the franchise has been loyal to, and I find myself perfectly happy with the Rangers giving him a six year contract worth over one hundred million dollars.
It’s a unique case, but C.J. Wilson is a unique person. The book says pitchers in their 30’s will quickly decline, but C.J. Wilson doesn’t always go by the book, and that’s one of the many attributes that should score Wilson around 100 million in the off season. Just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t think of many reasons to consider re-signing the blue-gloved lefty. Now I can’t think of any reason not to.