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C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, and The Manic Marlins

As of this writing  — and the way news is breaking right now, this could be outdated in anywhere from twelve hours to twelve seconds — the market for C.J. Wilson still stands at two teams: the Angels and Marlins. The common assumption was that the Marlins would pull out of the Wilson sweepstakes after landing Mark Buehrle last this afternoon, but at the moment, they have left their six-year offer on the table. Considering that the Marlins were willing to commit $220 million to Albert Pujols, it appears that a mere $58 million deal is not going to prevent them from jumping back in on another big-name free agent — especially when the trade market for starting pitchers is so steep.

With Buehrle off the market,it begins to get a bit easier to make some estimates on how much C.J. Wilson will get paid. The FanGraphs crowd-sourcing project had originally pegged Wilson as signing a 5 year, $15.5 million/year contract, but the Marlins have thrown a wrench in everything by giving Buehrle a contract with an AAV of $14.5 million. Since Buehrle was considered the second best pitcher on the market behind Wilson, it follows that Wilson should get a considerable amount more than that and will likely surpass his FanGraphs estimates. Then again, it seems unlikely that he approaches Roy Halladay’s deal from last offseason ($20m AAV) or surpass Jered Weaver’s current deal ($17m AAV).

Here’s where things get interesting to me: if the Marlins sign Wilson as well as Buehrle, they’ll then have two left-handed starters locked up through their age 36 season. If we assume that Wilson gets paid around $17 million/year (and we know Buehrle will receive $14.5m/year), which deal looks the best?

It seems as though most people like the idea of Buehrle for four year more than Wilson for six — signing a pitcher for that long a contract almost always ends badly — but I’m not sure I see it. Wilson is easily the better pitcher of the two, as he’s posted impressive stats while starting over the past two seasons and has only improved over time (3.24 FIP and 3.44 SIERA in 2011). He’s better than Buehrle was at the same age, and he’s arguably better right now than Buehrle has ever been. If this was simply a matter of which pitcher I’d prefer to have over the next two years, I’d take Wilson hands down, even if I had to pay a little bit more for him.

On that note, do we think Wilson will post lower than a 3.90-4.00 FIP over the next two seasons? Assuming he doesn’t get injured, that seems quite doable and like a low-end projection for him, but that’s exactly how Buehrle has performed over the past two seasons…and the Marlins are willing to commit $14.5 million on him for another four years.

So in other words, Wilson seems like a solid bet (especially given his relatively clean injury history) to be a better pitcher at age 32-33 than Buehrle. If the Marlins are willing to commit $14.5 million on Buehrle — and that looks like a good deal — then I don’t see the huge problem with making a similar commitment to Wilson over that same time frame.

Yes, it’s certainly risky to sign a pitcher to such a long term deal, and this could bite the Marlins in the butt in a few years. The odds that something will go wrong during the contract increases with each year added, but the Marlins seem most concerned with improving their team in the short term; they want to field a competitive team next season to show fans they are turning over a new leaf. Wilson would dramatically improve their rotation in 2012 (especially if the Marlins’ ballpark is as pitcher-friendly as it looks), and if they want to add another ace starter, they’re not going to find a better deal out there.

If the Marlins also sign Wilson, they’ll have transformed their rotation for a weak spot to one of the best in their division: Josh Johnson, C.J. Wilson, Anibal Sanchez, Mark Buehrle, and Ricky Nolasco. Neither Wilson or Buehrle may be Albert Pujols, but hey, they still combined for 9.3 WAR last season — considerably higher than Pujols has produced in a few years — and they come much cheaper.