Throughout the year we have been told that C.J. Wilson will be the most coveted starting pitcher on the market this offseason. Does this say more about C.J. Wilson's talent or the class of starters hitting free agency this year? Based on the contracts given out in recent years for top of the rotation starters, Mr. Wilson will be paid handsomely for his services over the next few years (probably somewhere in the $15 million AAV neighborhood for 4-6 years).
C.J. Wilson, now 30 years old, has had an interesting career arc so far. He was the 5th round choice of the Rangers in 2001 and his development in the minors was delayed by Tommy John surgery in 2004. Late in 2005, he was called up by the Rangers and made a few awful starts and worked out of the bullpen to a tune of 6.94 ERA. Between 2006-2009, Wilson bounced back and forth between the setup and closer role in the Rangers bullpen before returning as a starter in 2010. It was not certain that Wilson would even make the rotation before spring training began in 2010, but he was impressive enough to earn the third starter role and ended up being Texas' best pitcher until they acquired Cliff Lee midseason. Picking up where he left off in 2010, Wilson was even better in 2011, posting a lower ERA, a higher K rate, a lower walk rate and a lower WHIP, all while throwing more innings.
2010: 204 IP, 3.35 ERA, 7.50 K/9, 4.10 BB/9, 0.44 HR/9, 1.25 WHIP, 134 ERA+
2011: 223 IP, 2.94 ERA, 8.30 K/9, 2.98 BB/9, 0.64 HR/9, 1.19 WHIP, 152 ERA+
Much has been made of Wilson's struggles during the playoffs this year, and yes he has performed less than adequately this postseason (6.18 ERA, 24 K, 19 BB, 6 HR), but small sample size caveats need to be addressed. The 430 inning sample that Wilson has over the last two seasons is almost certainly more indicative of his true talent rather than the 51 inning sample of his two years in the playoffs. Wilson may not have bumped up his asking price with his performance this postseason, but I doubt that he has made the price go down. Some people will likely question whether Wilson can pitch in a big game or not, but his struggles this year could very well be a case of fatigue setting in due to the fact that he has thrown almost twice as many pitches in the last two seasons than he has in the previous five years of his career.
What can be expected of C.J. Wilson going forward? Wilson will celebrate his 31st birthday in a few weeks, and he is probably past his prime according to the normal aging curve of professional pitchers. But, as noted above, he has not put as many innings on his arm as most 30 year old starters would have at this point. Combining major and minor league numbers, Wilson has thrown a little more than 1,100 professional innings. Compare that to Edwin Jackson, another free agent pitcher this year, who at the age of 28 has thrown nearly 1,100 innings in the majors alone with another 550 in the minors. Could Wilson have more gas left in the tank thanks to his less than ordinary path to the rotation? I'm not sure if any studies have been done on pitching performance related to innings pitched rather than age, but it would be interesting to see the results.
As a possible point of comparison, Derek Lowe had a similar path to the rotation as Wilson and was able to find sustained success once he got there. Drafted by the Mariners in 1991, Lowe was being groomed as a starter. He was traded to the Red Sox in 1997 after getting 9 starts in Seattle and worked out of the bullpen in Boston. In 1998, Lowe bounced back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen much like Wilson in 2005. From 1999-2001, Lowe was a staple of the back end of the Sox bullpen, compiling an AL leading 42 saves in 2000. In 2002 at the age of 29, Lowe was moved back to the starting rotation for good. He has not started less than 30 games in the 10 seasons since then, averaging over 200 IP per year, and will likely come close to those numbers next year, if not with the Braves then with someone else. For the last three seasons, Lowe has been below average, but that is not shocking for a pitcher on the wrong side of 35, his previous seven seasons as a starter (aside from an unlucky 2004) were all fairly solid. The comparison doesn't match up perfectly, but it is close. I think that C.J. Wilson, and the team that signs him to his next contract, would be happy to see similar number to what Lowe posted in his four seasons with the Dodgers; that being a solid number two starter, but not an ace.
The other big free agent pitchers available this offseason, Edwin Jackson (age 28), Mark Buehrle (33), Roy Oswalt (34), and Hiroki Kuroda (37), all carry with them a good deal of risk. Factoring age into the equation, Edwin Jackson is probably the safest bet to perform at an above average level for the length of a potential contract. He has been durable (starting over 30 games each year since he's been a full time starter), but Jackson is far from the model of consistency, in fact he's been rather erratic over his career thus far. Mark Buehrle, as opposed to Jackson, has been extremely consistent as his career numbers are pretty damn similar to what he puts up on a year-to-year basis. There probably is more risk involved with Buehrle than there is with Jackson both due to their respective ages, and the fact that Buerhle has in 10 of his 12 seasons out-pitched his peripherals (posting a lower ERA than FIP). If it seems easy to pencil Buehrle in to throw 200+ innings of sub-4 ERA ball for whomever he pitches for next year, I will bring to your attention to a 33 year old junk-balling, innings-eater that signed a 3 year $33 million deal last offseason. Roy Oswalt had his $16 million option declined by the Phillies yesterday making him the newest addition to the 2012 free agent class. There is definitely injury concern with Oswalt as earlier this season he was contemplating retirement due to back issues. Those problems have seemingly been taken care of at the moment, and if he can stay healthy, he can be a solid pick up next year as a high risk, high reward candidate. Hiroki Kuroda is technically a free agent this year, but during the trade deadline this year, Kuroda made it clear he wanted to stay on the west coast, and just recently rumors have surfaced that he was either staying in L.A. or going back to Japan. Now, it is not clear if that means he wants to stay with the Dodgers in particular, or if he just wants to stay in California in general, but it appears the potential field is pretty narrow for the Kuroda sweepstakes.
There are two pretty big wild cards in the discussion of free agent starters this year; C.C. Sabathia and Yu Darvish. All signs point to C.C. opting out of his contract this offseason, requiring the Yankees to pony up more cash and more years than his current contract offers, using the most recent Cliff Lee deal as a starting point. It seems that the Yankees are the favorites to retain his services, but it remains within the realm of possibility for him to take a deal with another club. Yu Darvish, the 25 year old Japanese phenom, could go through the posting process and become a Major League ballplayer. Darvish has put up video game numbers for the Nippon-Ham Fighters (1.81 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, in 792 IP) over his career in Japan and would likely require a $100+ million dollar investment from a MLB team when accounting for the posting fee, thus limiting the pool of potential suitors. It also needs to be considered that it is difficult to project how a Japanese player will perform in the majors due to the differences in the size of the strike zone, the diameter of the ball, and the height of the mound. Ask a Red Sox fan how they feel about their club paying $100 million for a Japanese pitcher. But by all accounts Darvish is the real deal, and if not this year, we will see him pitching stateside shortly.