Examining the Case For & Against C.J. Wilson


It’s no secret that the impending free agent class of starting pitching is not the strongest group that we’ve seen in recent years. However, most people seem to agree that the top arm available (discounting C.C. Sabathia who has not formally opted out yet, and will resign with the Yankees regardless) is none other than Texas Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson. Additionally, it would seem that most expect that the Washington Nationals will be one of Wilson’s top suitors this winter.

Personally I disagree with the idea. I don’t see this being a good signing for the Nationals considering the rumored years and/or dollars that he might command on the market. Consider it a gut feeling – like the one I shared with many of my friends/family who are Red Sox fans when they signed John Lackey a few years ago to a similar contract. I think that money could be better spent elsewhere (those thoughts are coming in another post later this week). But, for the sake of fairness, let’s take a look at each side of the argument.

The argument for signing a pitcher like Wilson begins with the fact that the Nationals could use another arm for the upcoming season. And the team could use a star-caliber arm to pair with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann atop the rotation. It’s easy to understand why Wilson would seem like a logical choice here. He’s a quality pitcher, available this winter, left-handed, and on a good run at this point in his career. However, there is more to the situation that needs to be addressed.

First and foremost, he’s been durable and consistent. Over each of the past two seasons Wilson has eclipsed the 200 inning plateau. He’s made at least 33 starts each season. Combined since the start of the 2010 season he is 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA and 7.9 K/9. A pitcher who can throw the kind of innings Wilson has put up the past two seasons is going to be vital for a team like the Nationals. The bulk of the team’s projected rotation could be facing innings limits this coming season and it will be important for the Washington organization to have both depth to overcome those limits and a strong leader to pitch close to 200 innings near the top of the rotation. Zimmermann could reach that mark with a solid season but the Nationals could use a second reliable arm.

One thing that does concern me, however, is that despite the durability Wilson has shown over the past two seasons, his workload increased very swiftly in a short amount of time. He pitched just 73.2 innings in 2009. That total jumped to 204.0 in 2010 and 223.1 this past season. In addition the Rangers have reached the World Series two consecutive seasons, adding additional work and stress to the lefty’s arm. That’s a lot of wear and tear on an arm that isn’t really used to that kind of workload in a short period of time.

Wilson is often praised for how well he transitioned from reliever to starter prior to the 2010 season. However, many seem to overlook the fact that prior to debuting in the Majors in 2005, Wilson was almost strictly a starter during his minor league career. Transitioning back to the starting mindset is not as difficult as teaching a reliever to start games, so maybe this aspect of things is a little overblown.

However, Wilson’s last two full seasons starting in the minor leagues were not big successes. The 2003 season, his first full season at Double-A, saw him post a 6-9 record and 5.05 ERA in 123.0 innings of work. That season he saw his WHIP rise while his K/9 rate decreased. His season was cut short in early August when he underwent Tommy John surgery, keeping him out for all of the following season.

In 2005 Wilson returned to Double-A (after four High-A starts) for another go around, but the results were similar. In 16 starts on the year (58.1 innings) he went 0-5 with a 4.17 ERA. The poor performance was still enough for the Rangers to call him up to the Majors that season where he’d go 1-7 with a 6.94 ERA in 48.0 innings. He’d work solely out of the bullpen – with improved results – for the next four seasons.

While the past two seasons can certainly be considered successful years for Wilson, there is little track record of being able to produce at this level beyond that time frame. It is not uncommon nowadays for a pitcher (or player) to simply blossom later in their careers so it’s possible that is the case with Wilson. He will be 31 in a few weeks, the latter end of a player’s prime in most cases.

That said, the lack of a track record is one of the reasons behind why I feel that Wilson would not be a wise signing for the Nationals. By most accounts he could be facing offers that range from 5 to 6 years in length and totalling anywhere from $80-100 Million. Wilson, to me, doesn’t have the history to warrant giving such a contract to him.

Last winter’s Jayson Werth signing and the team’s aggressive spending on their past two drafts certainly show that the Nationals are willing (and able) to spend the money needed to make this team competitive in the near future. I just feel that if they are going to make this kind of commitment to a starting pitcher I’d rather they waited for one of the superior arms that will be available in next year’s free agent class.