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.