Brian Wilson is a weird guy. You know that because you have eyes and watch baseball, and you’ve heard all about the beard and the Taco Bell ads. Honestly, I’m really not sure anything I say can sum up what he is better than this:
Watch it, over and over, on a loop, until it haunts your dreams. (Via MLB GIFs)
But we’re not here to talk about Wilson’s eccentricities, really. We’re here because he’s about to become one of the most fascinating free agent cases of the winter. As you most certainly know by now, Wilson, 32 in March, was one of the better closers in the game for some pretty good San Francisco teams between 2008 and 2011. Then he blew out his elbow in his second appearance in 2012 and missed well over a year before resurfacing late in the 2013 season with the Dodgers, who made him Kenley Jansen’s top setup man as he allowed just one earned run in 19.2 regular season and playoff innings.
So you have a guy with a past history of success, and also a recent history of success. You also have a guy who has thrown all of 27 professional innings, including the minors and the postseason, since the end of the 2011 season. How in the world do you value that?
It’s something of a unique situation, because there’s not a lot of recent comparables here. Joakim Soria is perhaps the closest, because after several excellent years as Kansas City’s closer, he had a tough 2011 and missed all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery. He then signed with Texas for two years and a backloaded $8 million, plus a 2015 option. That’s a little different, however, because the Rangers signed Soria with the second year in mind, knowing that he’d miss much of 2013 — he made his debut in July and pitched 23.2 inconsistent innings — while Wilson has already made it back to the bigs and is ready to go.
Working in Wilson’s favor is that there’s no shortage of fits for him, really. The Dodgers would probably overpay to keep him, but aren’t likely to try to depose Jansen from the ninth for a third year in a row, and Wilson might have his eyes set on a closer’s job. Detroit’s bullpen woes have been well-documented, and the Yankees could use a replacement for Mariano Rivera, if he’s willing to shave. (David Robertson might be that man, but keeping him where he is would avoid opening up a hole in the eighth.)
There’s more. Cleveland has already moved on from Chris Perez, and Baltimore may do the same with Jim Johnson. Cincinnati might also be in the market, if Bryan Price follows through on reports this is the year Aroldis Chapman moves to the rotation, and Oakland needs to replace Grant Balfour, and doesn’t Wilson seem like he should have been an Athletic already? Finally, while he’s not likely to displace Koji Uehara in Boston, it’d feel remiss to not point out that Wilson has a giant beard and is from nearby New Hampshire.
But wherever he goes, teams are going to need to figure out what he is, because obviously an 0.66 ERA is neither sustainable or all that instructive. (In fact, let’s just get out of the way at the top that his entire 2013 is a case of ‘small sample size,’ in order to avoid repeating it a dozen times.) That is, he’s not going to be as good as he was for six weeks in Los Angeles, but what can teams reasonably expect?
When you look at his velocity charts from his very good 2009 (2.50 FIP) and 2010 (2.19), along with his somewhat less good 2011 (3.33) and into his abortive 2012-13, you can see a clear trend:
You can see that his velocity was excellent in 2009, still good in 2010 though falling, and then made a clear downtown in 2011. If you’re thinking that it wasn’t until 2012 that his elbow actually blew up, he made it very clear in this April 2012 interview that it was hardly a new concern:
Wilson disclosed in spring training that his elbow hurt more than he let on in 2011. Asked Sunday when he first realized something was seriously wrong, he said, “Two thousand ten, if you want to be honest. I was pitching on borrowed time last year.”
Remember, kids: always play through pain. Now as you can see on the right of that chart, his velocity isn’t quite up to pre-surgery levels, but it was clearly trending in the right direction and allowed him to touch 96 at times. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his strikeouts increased along with it; in his first 10.1 innings, he struck out eight, while in his final 9.1 (including playoffs) he whiffed 13. Again, small samples and all that, but encouraging. He also walked only six, which is good not only because control is often the toughest thing to regain after surgery, but because he’d often had problems with that even at his best.
Wilson has also begun changing his repertoire:
In 2009-10, he was almost entirely fastball and cutter. The next year, he began mixing in what was marked by PitchFX as a sinker, but which I’m guessing might really be the two-seamer that Dave Allen wrote about in 2011. But in 2013, he started using that cutter far more than ever before, perhaps to compensate for the velocity that hadn’t yet returned, then started using it a bit less in the playoffs as he was throwing harder.
That appears to be a conscious decision to work in more pitches, as this tweet from ESPN’s Mark Saxon (in regards to an August rehab appearance) showed:
— Mark Saxon (@markasaxon) August 8, 2013
We never really did see those pitches in practice, but it does seem clear that Wilson wants to diversify his portfolio, as it were, and that’s a good thing. 63% of the cutters he threw this year that were put in play ended up as grounders, close to the 60% it’s been over the last four seasons, and when you have a pitcher who still throws hard (even if not quite as hard) but may have found a way to keep hitters guessing more while limiting the walks and keeping the ball on the ground, that’s a very good sign — especially when he’ll be nearly two full years off of surgery when Opening Day arrives, and carries the “proven postseason closer” history that some clubs value.
Back to the original question, what is Wilson worth? As I said, there’s a lot of teams that would like him, but there’s also a lot of relievers with closing experience out there — guys like Fernando Rodney, Joe Nathan, Balfour, Perez, and Joaquin Benoit, to name a few — and his limited recent track record may limit the teams that would give him the long-term contract he’d likely prefer.
The best option, instead, may be to sign a one year deal for a higher annual value, have a good season, and then sign a bigger deal covering his age 33-35 seasons after the year. If Brandon League can average more than $7m, it’s not unreasonable at all to think that Wilson can get $8m or $9m for a single year, or perhaps annually over two years if he so chooses. It’s a huge risk, of course, but then giving money to free agent relievers always is. At least with Wilson, he’s proven that he can come back and be effective, even if only over a short period of time.