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What Are They Worth? Part 4: CJ Wilson

Rolling right along to #4 on the free agency evaluation list, we arrive at our first pitcher, CJ Wilson.

Wilson is kind of a fun study. He is a converted reliever coming off of a pair of great seasons. In 2011 he posted a 152 ERA+ over 223.1 innings, and his peripheral rates (2.78 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9 (in Texas!)) made the peripheral stats love him, too -- both FanGraphs and StatCorner, using different fielder- independent methodologies, gave him an outstanding 5.9 WAR, good for 7th among all pitchers in baseball last year.

This is coming off of a great 2010, in which he posted a WAR between 4.4 and 4.9, depending on which site you use (with the peripherals, it's likely one of the higher numbers). Add it all together, and what you get, thanks to CC Sabathia, who re-signed with the Yankees, is the best starting pitcher on the market.

As always, we will start by determining the type of value of which Wilson is capable were he to play a season starting today. Wilson has been rather consistent over the past two years. Over that time he's posted a solid strikeout rate (7.9/9 IP), walk rate (3.5/9 IP) and HR rate (0.5/9 IP), while keeping the ball on the ground (49.3%) and throwing plenty of innings, 427.1. Add these up and you get a guy who is easily a 4.5-win pitcher.

Durability is not a major concern, as he was a dependable reliever (and part-time closer) for years before being transferred to the rotation. From 2007-2009 he tossed 188 innings in 190 games, posting a 125 ERA+ and a FIP- of 80. Going forward, I fully expect him to be healthy. He has shown no signs of slowing down (velocity was actually up in 2011), and while he has taken a pair of big innings jumps in each of the last season, he got plenty of work in as a reliever prior to this, and Texas has perhaps the best pitcher conditioning program in the majors -- he's been taken care of.

There seems to be an almost unanimous consensus that Wilson will receive a 5-year deal. I can't disagree with that; Wilson has pitched significantly better than either AJ Burnett or John Lackey did leading up to their respective free agencies, and both received 5-year, $82.5 million contracts -- and Burnett was both significantly older, and not even the top pitcher in his free agency class. So, what will Wilson provide for value over the next five years, aged 31-35?

Because I don't see a significant decline in his immediate future, I will subscribe to the theory put forth by Alan Schwartz of ESPN, which gives an aging curve for pitcher value something to the tune of this:

30: 1.00
31: 1.00
32: 1.00
33: 0.93
34: 0.81
35: 0.67

If he starts out as a 4.5-WAR pitcher, this gives him the following values, by year:

2012: 4.5
2013: 4.5
2014: 4.2
2015: 3.7
2016: 3.0

This gives us a total of 19.9 wins, so the contract he should be offered this offseason (remember, he gets paid in 2012 dollars, in which the value of a win is about $5 MM) is $99.5 MM, or an average annual value (AAV) of $19.9 MM.

So, we know how much Wilson is worth, how much he should get paid; but, how much will he get paid? This is tough. As I noted, he pitched better than both Lackey and Burnett before their free agent years, and they both got AAVs of $16.5 MM. However, the market is different now. Most of the usual suspects aren't expected to be major players for Wilson:

Boston has three top-of-the-rotation -type pitchers, and is expected to be looking for depth; the Yankees could use Wilson, but it's not likely that they tie up that much money for a want, and not a need (though it wouldn't be unprecedented). The Cubs could try for him, but they will likely prioritize first base, where somebody will probably be eating up more than $20 million, and Cubs president Theo Epstein has said that he's looking to build 'assets' at the moment -- with the Cubs an outside shot at competition in 2012, it doesn't look like he's going to go insane on the free agent market. The Dodgers aren't in a position to spend any money, and will likely spend the offseason trying to tie up their own stars, and the Mets have gone on record as saying they will be slashing payroll for 2012.

Texas is the frontrunner to retain Wilson's services, and one has to believe that he won't pressure the team that drafted and developed him for a record-setting contract in a market that I project to be underwhelming (where the top free agent pitcher is concerned). The crowdsourcing article I to which I linked earlier estimated that Wilson would take an AAV of $15.5 MM, and wihle I do think he will get less than he deserves, that seems a bit low. In 2010, Wilson produced $18.5 MM of value, I think that will be closer to what he will earn. 5 years and $90 MM ($18 MM AAV) makes the most sense to me, in this market.

And there's the CJ Wilson case.

Projected contract length: Five years
Projected value over that time: $100 million
Projected actual salary: $90 million


Part 1: Albert Pujols
Part 2: Prince Fielder
Part 3: Jose Reyes



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