Free Agent Class of 2012: C.J. Wilson

The Rangers are one of the hottest teams in baseball and yet their pitching often gets overlooked. If I asked fans outside of Texas who the 'ace' of the Rangers staff was, I'm not sure if the majority of fans would be able to name C.J. Wilson. But make no mistake, Wilson is a bona fide ace and when he enters free agency this offseason, the potential suitors will be lined up. I'll try to come up with a reasonable value for this enigmatic starting pitcher and list some potential landing spots.

2011 free agent contracts used to gauge his value

Hiroki Kuroda, Jorge de la Rosa and Cliff Lee

I started with the biggest free agent contract signed in 2010, Cliff Lee, and worked my way back to a couple more reasonable deals to figure out what Wilson might be worth.  Lee earned his six-year mega-deal (worth about $24 million per year) by posting some of the most ridiculous postseason numbers in baseball history.  For his postseason career, Lee is 7-2 with a 2.13 ERA.  Lee also has a Cy Young and GM's had been watching his peripheral numbers trending in the right direction since his 22-3 campaign in 2008.  In short, all of the indicators pointed to continued success. 

De La Rosa (31), like Wilson, was dealt the unfavorable hand of pitching in a notorious hitters' park.  While De La Rosa had not pulled together back to back great seasons before signing his three-year deal worth about $10 million per year, his peripheral numbers (mainly his high strikeout rate) and his 16 win campaign in 2009 made him a high-reward arm that the Rockies felt could be a nice compliment to Ubaldo Jimenez (before they traded him away). 

Hiroki Kuroda (36) is a bit older than Wilson but their numbers and circumstances are similar enough that I felt compelled to compare the two.  Kuroda signed a one-year deal before this season worth about $12 million.  The prior three seasons, he was under contract for about the same amount (a three-year deal which Kuroda signed when he debuted in 2008).  Kuroda might have been able to land a bigger deal on the open market but he felt compelled to stay in Los Angeles.  Hiroki's career 3.46 ERA has earned him a reputation for being consistent, when healthy. 

How do they compare on the mound:

C.J. Wilson's story is different than most. The crafty lefty was converted to a reliever late in his rookie year after his debut as a starter in 2005 at the age of 24 went sour. As a starter that year, he was 0-5 with a 12.05 ERA in 6 games. As a reliever, he compiled a respectable 2.73 ERA in 18 games. He would spend the next four seasons as a reliever, displaying mixed results. In the offseason prior to 2010, Wilson expressed a strong desire to attempt to rejoin the rotation. He reported to camp early to 'stretch out' and showed manager Ron Washington enough to earn a spot in the rotation behind Rich Harden and Scott Feldman. It didn't take Wilson long to convince the media pundits that he belonged; his first half highlights included 2 complete games, 7 wins and a 3.35 ERA. Wilson was a major reason why the Rangers found themselves playing in their first World Series. 

This season, Wilson has built upon that success, posting a healthy 3.35 ERA to go along with 10 wins and an All-Star appearance.  What makes his numbers even more impressive is the fact that he plays in a notorious hitters park.  In fact, more home runs have been hit at Arlington (the Texas Rangers home ballpark) than any other stadium in baseball and, yet, Wilson has remarkably maintained the 5th best HR/9 ip ratio of any pitcher in the AL (behind only Justin Masterson, C.C. Sabathia, Jered Weaver and Doug Fister).  He has been very successful over a relatively small sample size.  The fact that he's 30 likely diminishes his opportunity to land a big time deal but there will be plenty of teams calling Wilson's agent. 

In terms of consistency, I would put him ahead of Jorge De La Rose but slightly behind Kuroda.  His peripheral numbers are pretty good and the fact that he has thrown 5 complete games over the past two seasons makes him a name that will be coveted.  He's far from winning a Cy Young so he's not in the same category as Cliff Lee yet but he's still fairly young and could end up being a really good starter over the next decade.  He doesn't boast an overpowering fastball or a deadly curveball so some might argue that he has a lower ceiling than De La Rosa but he does a tremendous job of mixing up his pitches and changing speeds to keep hitters off balance.  He is more refined than De La Rosa and seems to understand how to pitch (not just how to throw).

The skinny...

The risk is that Wilson could sign a deal and revert back to a 2008 form which saw him post a 6.02 ERA combined with a 1.64 WHIP, 1.6 HR/9ip and 5.2 BB/9 ip, as a closer.  For that reason, I don't think that there will be many teams, if any, willing to go more than four years guaranteed with Wilson.  In fact, Wilson might not want to go more than three or four years if he feels like he's worth more than what's out there (I highly doubt that there won't be a host of offers but it could happen, I suppose).  A big postseason could catapult Wilson into big-deal territory but for now I look for him to get a deal worth more than the one that De La Rosa got but less than Lee's in the 4 year range.  A three-year deal worth $14-15 million per year plus incentives (and/or a fourth year mutual option) could make a lot of sense.  Alternatively, a team could try to lock him up for four years with a fifth year player option/buyout at slightly less.  That type of strategy could bode well for a team looking to add a top of the rotation starter to build around. 

The possibilities...

Wilson is a Texas product and I think that it would be an unpopular PR move to let him walk but with all of the young arms that the Rangers have on their current roster and an undying desire to see Neftali Feliz back in the rotation, it would seem highly unlikely that the Rangers would be willing to match what other teams are going to throw at Wilson.  There are plenty of teams out there that would love to add a young all-star caliber lefty in their rotation.  Truth be told, Wilson will probably be the gem of the 2012 free-agent pitching class.  While Mark Buehrle, Edwin JacksonPaul Maholm and Joel Piniero will likely steal a lot of headlines, it could be Wilson that most teams will covet.  The Yankees will be first in line followed by the Nationals and Angels.  The Mets, White Sox and Cubs could also get into the mix but I wouldn't stop there.  The Cardinals will seemingly have needs to fill but until Prince Albert Pujols signs his deal, their GM is likely going to be handcuffed a bit.

In short, it's anyone's guess where he goes.

While it's almost impossible to predict where Wilson lands, one thing I'm convinced is that he won't be returning to the Rangers.  The formula for predicting a suitor from an endless list of teams might have to start with the psyche of Wilson and the situation.  How will the Texan react to not being offered a contract by his team?  My guess is that he won't be too happy.  While the Angels have a strong rotation, I could definitely see them getting into the mix for Wilson and I think that CJ would be very tempted to stay in the AL West to enact some revenge on his ex-Rangers squad.  I'm not sure if I see CJ pursuing the bright lights of NY but when the Steinbrenner's open their checkbook, anything can happen so it could happen (it could certainly vault CJ's value more in line with the 5 year $15 million estimate).  Make no mistake, the Yankees will be looking for a starting pitcher in this offseason.  I listed the Nationals because I think that pitching alongside Stephen Strasburg could be tempting to the young lefty as he looks ahead to the next four years of his career.  The Nationals are seemingly a few pieces away from being a contender and left-handed pitchers are always in high demand in the NL East.  The Mets will likely call on CJ but I'm not sure if he'll be eager to step into that mess. 

Bottom line...

My crystal ball prediction - he'll stay in the NL West with the Angels.


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