Which free agent starter should the Yankees pursue?

(photo c/o The AP)

Following the CC Sabathia contract drama, the second-most important issue facing the Yankees this offseason is whether they decide to pursue one of the big-ticket free agent starting pitchers, and if so, which one.

It’s no secret that C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish are the two most appealing names headlining an offseason of fairly lackluster free agent pitching options. Unlike last year, where you had Cliff Lee unquestionably being the most coveted hurler on the market, both Wilson and Darvish come with some question marks.

For the lefty Wilson, the biggest concern for any team would be whether the converted reliever can continue to pitch at the elite level he’s shown since making the transition to the rotation — though it’s a short one, his track record is pretty stellar, as he’s been the ninth-most valuable pitcher (by fWAR) in all of MLB these last two seasons. Wilson turned in the finest year of his career in 2011 – nice timing for the pending free agent – a season that ranked among the top 5 AL starting pitchers in terms of fWAR.

The primary reason Wilson was able to make the jump from very good starter to elite was the shaving of more than one walk off his BB/9. Whether he can keep this improvement up or revert back to the pitcher who had the second-worst walk rate in the league among qualified starters in 2010 will be the $100 million question this offseason. Regardless, Wilson truly put up an all-around superb season, and it wasn’t even aided by significant luck on balls in play (.287 BABIP).

One of the benefits of potentially signing Wilson is that he’s logged far fewer innings than your average soon-to-be 31-year-old starter would have at this point, so presumably there’s less risk of Wilson breaking down at some point during the presumed five-year-plus deal he’ll command. Another significant draw for a team like the Yankees is Wilson’s handedness. Though the Yankees just completed one of their more successful pitching seasons in recent memory despite a rotation featuring only one lefthanded starter, adding a southpaw of Wilson’s caliber would be a major advantage in helping the Yankees mitigate the damage done by opposing teams aiming for the short porch. That said, one thing I did not realize about Wilson is that he actually had a slight reverse platoon split in 2011. It wasn’t massive, but lefties did hit him slightly better than righties this season. However, when it comes to leaving the ballpark, Wilson is near peerless, having held lefties to two — yes, two — home runs across 91 1/3 innings over the last two seasons.

As far as actual stuff goes, Wilson is a considerably different lefty than, say, Sabathia, more in the mold of a Cliff Lee won’t-overpower-you-but-throws-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink-type southpaw. Wilson throws three fastballs—a low-90s four-seamer, low-90s two-seamer and high-80s cutter—and also mixes in a low-80s slider, mid-70s curve and the occasional low-80s changeup. Like Sabathia, the slider is his big swing-and-miss pitch, especially when facing portsiders. Surprisingly, for as big a strikeout pitcher as he is, none of the other pitches in Wilson’s arsenal carry an above-average Whiff% per TexasLeaguers, but the reason for this becomes clearer when you head to Baseball-Reference and find that Wilson’s 33% called-strike percentage was the second-best in the AL after Bartolo Colon and that he was tied for seventh in the league in Strikeouts-Looking %.

However, the true secret to his success just might be the two-seamer, which he gets an above-50% GB% with against both righties—where it’s actually just under 60%—and lefties. Though he deploys a changeup to combat righties, it checked in as his worst pitch by far per Pitch Type Linear Weights, with righties hitting it for a home run 1.3% of the time. His cutter was also terrific in 2011, ranking as the 5th-most effective in MLB by Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Linear Weights.

For the most part, Wilson will implement any one of his six pitches against hitters standing on either side of the plate, though he tends to favor the two-seamer against lefties regardless of whether he’s ahead or behind in the count. Like many pitchers, the slider’s his pitch of choice when ahead 0-2, and while he’s not afraid to throw it when behind, chances are you’ll see a fastball in a hitters’ count.

After digesting all of this information, it’s difficult to build a significant case against signing Wilson, provided that the years and money don’t get out of hand (in the case of a pitcher entering his Age 31 season who has pitched extremely well though only has two years of starting experience under his belt, I’d loosely define “out of hand” being anything north of $100 million or five years). Age is a factor, and no one wants to be saddled with the next A.J. Burnett contract. While there’s nothing that says Wilson couldn’t also flame out like Burnett, Burnett’s slide into mediocrity has also been perhaps one of the most extreme since the advent of free agency. John Lackey is also a cautionary tale, although neither Lackey nor Burnett were coming off anywhere near the two seasons that Wilson has put up these last two years, and in fact, between Lackey’s and Burnett’s 18 pre-Boston and New York seasons combined they only have one year that exceeds the 134 ERA+ Wilson put up in 2010 (Lackey’s 2007), and none that exceed the 152 he managed this past season.

Another bone of contention with a potential Wilson signing by the Yankees is the loss of their first-round draft pick next June. While it’d be nice to be able to hold onto that pick, the Yankees will once again be picking in the 30s, and given the team’s somewhat questionable first-round picks the last few seasons — Andrew Brackman, Slade Heathcott and Cito Culver — I’m not sure a desire to hold on to the pick in and of itself is worth passing on a talent like Wilson.

Still another argument for staying away from Wilson is that the free agent class of the 2012-2013 offseason could be one of the more robust ever seen; as such it’s been suggested that the Yankees save all of their ammunition now and make a killing next offseason. This is a tempting thought, given the impressive crop of names that currently appear on the list of potential free agent starting pitchers — among them Matt Cain, John Danks, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Francisco Liriano, Shaun Marcum, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez and Jonathan Sanchez  — though of course, as we just saw with Jered Weaver this past season, there are no guarantees that all or any of these players will still be available in a year’s time.

This tactic worked for the Yankees in the 2007-2008 offseason as they bode their time waiting for CC Sabathia’s impending free agency the following year, but teams seem more inclined to re-ink their frontline starters when possible, assuming said starters are willing to take a hometown discount like Weaver did. And even if the Yankees did end up signing Wilson, since when does one free agent signing preclude the Yankees from doing something the following offseason? If you truly believe that the Yankees will be able to add two near-ace pitchers from that pool mentioned above, then I could see passing on Wilson, but this idea is somewhat akin to holding Mariano Rivera back from pitching on the road in extra innings to protect a lead that may never come.

We’ll take a look at Yu Darvish tomorrow.

29 thoughts on “Which free agent starter should the Yankees pursue?

  1. I’d opt for Wilson if the Yankees can keep it a 5 years and somewhere in the neighborhood of $85M. More then that I think I would pass and look at Buehrle if he’s available he should be less expensive in both dollars and years. Then If I were the Yankees I’d make an all out press for someone in the 2013 FA class at the end of the 2012 season.
    The thing that scares me about Darvish is the amount of money and years it’s going to take to sign him considering he has NO MLB experience. And let’s be honest there really hasn’t been any “outstanding” starting pitchers come from Japan that warrant an investment of about $100M.
    In any case we should find out soon enough the direction the Yankees intend to take. FA is only about 2 to 3 weeks away.

  2. Darvish is strictly a scouting decision, but if the Yankees really like him, there’s no reason they can’t pursue both. If CC and Nova are the only locks for the rotation, there is plenty of room for two pitchers. Also, Buerhle is out there as an attractive option as well.

  3. It depends on how he pitches tonight, if he is solid and gets to pitch in the World Series we need to see how he does on that stage and then make a decision. Im not in favor of losing a first round draft pick for anything less than a bonafid ace but we need one more solid starter in the rotation so Banuelos and Betances can develop at the number 5 spot

  4. I don’t think any of us are in any position to evaluate whether Yu Darvish is worth pursuing and at what price. I’d assume that if the Yankees are aggressive with him that they will have done their due diligence.

    They should obviously kick the tires on CJ Wilson but I wouldn’t be that aggressive and would assume that other teams would be willing to pay more than I would. The best option is probably to pursue a 2 or 3 starter by trade and if they don’t find a good trade out there, sign this year’s versions of Freddy and Bart and let them battle with Hughes, Noesi, Warren, Phelps, et al for the back of the rotation spots and then look to upgrade at trade deadline when you’d expect there to be more out there than there was this year.

  5. Free agents the Yankee’s should sign? CC Sabathia lol. CC is a special pitcher, a HOF worthy guy, and one of the top 5 pitchers in all of baseball. Yes he is 31 with a lot of innings and weight, but again normal rules don’t apply to elite players, which is why they are elite. Not to say he wont decline, but it most likely wont be as steep a drop off from say a very good pitcher like Wilson will experience. I think a lot of teams are going to be in on CJ Wilson and he will get an undeserving contract. I have been banging the Yu Darvish drum for a while now. Iv run through my Darvish reasons before but I’ll say them again; if he was in our AAA system and put up the numbers he did in what amounts to a AAAA system he would be considered one of the top 3 pitching prospects in all of baseball, he is 25 so his best days might be in front of him, he wont cost a draft pick, and for a little icing on the cake he will bring in overseas revenue. He could potentially be a young ace worth building a rotation around. CJ Wilson might not have a lot of innings, but you can also look at that as you don’t know if he can year in year out be a 200+ inning guy. Buehrle is 33 turning 34 so no thank you on that. One guy I would keep an eye on is Roy Oswalt. The Phillies are not expected to pick up his 16 million dollar option due to health concerns. If he can be had on a one year deal I think that would represent a nice low risk, high reward deal. Edwin Jackson’s numbers have been trending upward the past 3 years and he has pitched in the AL East before, but I would only want him on our terms.

    CC – Yes
    CJ – No
    Buerhle – No
    Darvish – Yes price dependant. I dont want to spend 120 million on the kid between the posting fee and contract.
    Edwin Jackson – If he can be had for a 3 year deal for 10 or 12 million per I think thats fair.
    Oswalt – 1 year deal for 6-12 million? Sure

  6. Buster_ESPN Buster Olney
    Just talked to agent (not Boras)about Wilson FA. Says with a really bad October could get 5/60-65m. With a good Oct., 5-6/$85-100m.
    2 hours ago

    I’m all on board with 5/65. Thanks for letting up 16 ER in 15.2 IP this October, CJ.