Offseason decisions: Should the Yankees sign CJ Wilson?

One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.

In my younger days, I went through a brief period when I liked nothing more than to collect team yearbooks. As such, I have a collection of them dating from the period when both the Yankees and Mets were at their early 1990s nadir. The 1993 Yankees’ yearbook—in addition to featuring the odd sight of current Red Sox owner John Henry pictured as a Yankee Director—includes a line that notes the team received “the free agent heave-ho [from] the likes of Greg Maddux, Barry Bonds and David Cone, whose bait-and-switch tactics revealed their true insincerities.”

I bring this up not only because it sounds like it was written by 15-year old girl whose boyfriend just broke up with her, but also because until Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees last off-season, the team’s failure to land any of Maddux, Bonds or Cone was the last time the team aggressively pursued a marquee free agent only to lose out. All of which is to say that while nothing is ever a sure thing, it seems likely that if the team decides they want to sign CJ Wilson, they will get him. But is that the right move?

The Pros

There can be no dispute that the Yankees need starting pitching. Though re-signing CC Sabathia without significant drama improved the situation, the team still has a serious need for starters. Dan Szymborski’s recently released ZiPS projections forecast the Yankees having less than 400 innings of above-average starting pitching on the roster for 2012—all of it from Sabathia and second-year pitcher Ivan Nova. In 2011 the Yankees were lucky to catch lightening in a bottle with a thoroughly unexpected season from Bartolo Colon and a surprising one from Freddy Garcia. But counting on either for next season—to say nothing of AJ Burnett (now dreadful for two consecutive years) and Phil Hughes (who took a major step backwards in 2011)—is a risky proposition at best.

Will Yankee fans be happy to see this man in Pinstripes? (Icon/SMI)

There is little doubt that if Wilson maintains the performance level he set in Texas, he would add significantly to the Yankees’ starting pitching. Over the past two years, only nine American League pitchers threw more innings than Wilson’s combined 427.1, and only four—Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver did it with a better ERA+. Wilson’s track record is not as long as those pitchers—a point we will discuss more in the “con” section—but since his move to the rotation Wilson has pitched at an ace level. His short track record as a starter does also give him the benefit that while he is entering his age 31 season—and he pitched in the Majors since 2005—he has barely over 700 regular season innings, significantly fewer than many pitchers the same age.

Another advantage for the Yankees is that Wilson will cost them only money. Though the Yankees payroll has flexibility issues upcoming—in 2013 alone they have nearly $50 million committed to Burnett, Rafael Soriano and Derek Jeter alone—they could plausibly afford Wilson, whose deal seems likely to end up in the range of $15 million per year for five years. And unlike the assortment of young pitchers the team is forever rumored to be involved in acquiring—ranging from King Felix to Matt Cain to Wandy Rodriguez—signing Wilson would allow the Yankees to add a starting pitcher without sacrificing either top prospect Jesús Montero or any of the organization’s young arms.

The Cons

The most obvious con with Wilson is that he has just two good seasons as a starter, and even those years have some red flags. Prior to 2010, Wilson had made just six career starts at the big league level (all in his rookie season) and even now he has significantly more games finished (110) than started (73). Few free agent pitchers commanding big money as starters have such a short history in that role. It seems reasonable to ask if Wilson will be able to maintain his status as a consistent 200-innng, above-average starter.

And that question is only more reasonable when you consider that a five-year deal for the pitcher would cover his age 31 through 35 seasons. Teams from the Yankees (Burnett) to the Braves (Derek Lowe) to the Red Sox (John Lackey) have been burned in recently memory by signing pitchers on the wrong side of age 30, some of who had far more extensive histories of quality than Wilson. As noted above, while his light workload in years past might aid him in remaining an effective pitcher as he ages, it remains a fact that long-term contracts for pitchers in their 30s are a real risk.

It is perhaps an even bigger risk for Wilson, whose peripheral numbers raise some questions. Though his performance has been strong during his starting days, it is also true that Wilson led the American League in walks in 2010 (with 93) and was seventh his year. The lefty saw an uptick in strikeout numbers pushing his K/BB ratio to nearly three but prior to this season it was under two for his career. Among American League ERA qualifiers the past two seasons (i.e., those who pitched at least 324 innings) Wilson is just one—along with Burnett—of six pitchers to have a BB/9 above three and a half.

The Conclusion

Ulitmately, I cannot endorse the Yankees’ signing Wilson. This is in part because of his weaknesses but also because it seems a poor allocation of the team’s resources in general. While my personal preference is for the team to acquire Japanese ace Yu Darvish—who might cost slightly more in raw dollars than Wilson, but whose posting fee would not count against the team’s luxury tax—there are other routes the team could go.

GM Brian Cashman is said to be in contact with the agent for Roy Oswalt, and a shorter commitment for the former Astros and Phillies hurler would give the team more flexibility should a true ace—like Tim Lincecum who will currently be a free agent after the 2013 season—hit the market. The signing of Oswalt, combined with bringing back Freddy Garcia, would likely allow the team to comfortably project as serious contenders while both keeping their options open for trades and the possibility of development of young pitchers like Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances.

Only time will tell if the Yankees set an aggressive pursuit of Wilson, and if the lefty will be tempted. But the team may ultimately be glad if the pitcher chooses the path taken by pitchers like Maddux and Lee and passes up the Yankees’ millions.

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  1. mando3b said...

    Judging by what I saw in the post-season, Wilson just does not have the psychological make-up to succeed in NY: he pitched nervous, to put it mildly.

  2. Richard Barbieri said...

    Obviously your point is a somewhat subjective one, but it is worth nothing that Wilson’s postseason ERA (4.82) while no great shakes is far better than the one sported by CC Sabathia (7.92) prior to his arrival in NY.

    (It’s also better than CC’s ERA in the postseason—5.84—SINCE 2009, suggesting perhaps the mental component of all this is severly overrated.)

  3. Yankeehawk said...

    Wilson has had two good seasons, but scares the crap out of me when thinking about his future should he sign with the Yanks.  He has thrown a ton of innings the past couple of seasons and strikes me as an injury candidate also given the fact he is north of 31 now.  Wilson is the kind of bad deal we have seen the Yanks make too many times in the past.  Carl Pavano, Vazquez, etc etc

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