Last winter, the free agent pitcher headlines were dominated by the courting of Cliff Lee. Everyone seemed to be following his contract negotiations with the Phillies, Rangers and Yankees. Sure there were other semi-big players on the market, but he was the one to sign.
This year there’s not that one big name everyone is after. CC Sabathia has an opt-out clause in his contract, which he will probably use, but he will more than likely stay with the Yankees with a more lucrative deal. Other fairly big names include Chris Carpenter, Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson, Erik Bedard and Japanese sensation Yu Darvish. But it seems the most sought-after prize will be C.J. Wilson.
Unlike the others listed above, Wilson, 31, is not too old, not injury prone, and not inconsistent. Or he’s just flat-out better. After breaking out in 2010, he has followed up with another very good season. He has pitched to an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 3.08/3.07/3.43 and has already thrown 181 innings for Texas in 27 starts. It should also be noted that his strikeouts are up (over eight per nine innings) and his walks are down (slightly above three). He did have injuries in the past, but hasn’t suffered from anything since converting to the starting rotation.
This all being said, what type of money should Wilson be looking for? To figure this out, let’s take a look at what some comparable pitchers got and the type of walk years they had. In 2008, A.J. Burnett struck out more nine per nine innings, pitched to a 3.45 FIP and threw over 200 innings. Sure this was a good year for him, but it was an anomaly. Burnett, who was 32 when he hit free agency, spent a lot of time on the disabled list prior to this season and although he always showed great stuff, he was inconsistent and didn’t have command. He wound up getting $82.5 million over five years from the Yankees.
The following year, John Lackey hit the market and received the same contract as Burnett, but from the Red Sox. Lackey, who was also 32, didn’t have the same upside, but still put up solid numbers. He struck out more than seven per nine innings while walking almost two-and-a-half per nine. His velocity was also up in this year, he had a low home run rate, but was injured for a small part of the season. Lackey wasn’t great, but he was a solid starter in a pretty thin starting pitching market, which got him the big deal.
Wilson will get more money than either of these guys, and it’s probably a safe bet that he’ll get a contract that nets him around $100 million. Not only is he younger and a lefty, but he’s just a better pitcher and the best pitcher on the market (not counting Sabathia).
Two things that might hurt him, however, are the fact that there are a lot of pitchers that are a tier or two below him, and if his price is too high, teams could settle for one of them. Also, there is a very strong crop of pitchers in next year’s market (Cole Hamels, John Danks, Matt Cain, etc.), so some teams might be willing to wait another year.
I think the Rangers will make a deal at around $100 million over five or so years to lock him up because they don’t want another Cliff Lee episode.