Yesterday, an odd thing happened. Jon Morosi of Fox Sports reported on the interest surrounding C.J. Wilson, the top pitcher on the free agent market, and the Red Sox were curiously missing from that list. Now, I don't mean curious in the sense that we expected Boston to be there going after Wilson, but curious in the sense that their name -- whether through media reports, "anonymous" agent feeds, or actual sourcing -- is associated with the top names on the market, to at least gauge interest or help drive up the price.
An official with one of the involved clubs predicted that the Texas Rangers left-hander would get "at least five years" with an option for a sixth year; an official of another club told FOXSports.com that Wilson could end up with a six-year deal.
In other words, Wilson, who turns 31 this week, appears likely to surpass the five-year, $82.5 million guarantees received by John Lackey and A.J. Burnett in recent years.
It's not surprising that the Red Sox wouldn't be in on a pitcher expected to get that much for that long. New general manager Ben Cherington made it a point in his initial press conference to point out that trades and pitchers they could buy-low on for one-year deals were probably the direction they would go in, and, given their rotation has a core of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz, that's not a bad thing. They are three strong already, and their focus should be on signing pitchers who will stick at the back of the rotation, as well as shoring up their depth in case someone or someones go down.
Signing Wilson doesn't help them accomplish their goals. He would be costly, and even with Jonathan Papelbon gone to Philadelphia, freeing up some money, there are other places it needs to go. If Boston just needed one rotation spot and the rest of the roster was set, Wilson might make sense, but there are reasons to think we should be happy that this is not the case.
Wilson has been a starting pitcher for two years, and done very well in that role. He has a 3.14 ERA over 427-1/3 innings the last two seasons, including another 52-1/3 innings in the playoffs, where he has a 4.82 ERA, 7.4 K/9, and five walks per nine. Combine that together, and in the 480 innings he has pitched in the rotation the last two seasons, he has 7.9 strikeouts per nine (almost a full strikeout above the league average), 3.7 walks per nine (more than half-a-walk worse than average) and a 2.1 K/BB, also average-ish. He leans more groundball than flyball-oriented, but he's much more Clay Buchholz than Derek Lowe in that regard, hovering around the 50 percent mark.
You might be wondering why I have included those playoff stats alongside his regular season numbers. Part of the reason is the quality of competition: Wilson has had to face the Rays twice, the Yankees once, the Tigers once, and the Cardinals once in October the past two years. Those are all high-quality opponents, and starters aren't expected to be at their very best against lineups like that every time out. But hey, that's life in the AL East for Red Sox pitchers, as well as CC Sabathia, David Price, James Shields, and so on. Those pitchers are not only great from an un-adjusted standpoint, but if you consider the quality of their competition, they are even more impressive.
Wilson, on the other hand, has not had to face the toughest competition as a starter. And I don't even mean just because he has been in the AL West. Statistically speaking, Wilson has faced the softest lineups of any starter in the major leagues, minimum 100 innings pitched, for two years running. Baseball Prospectus's Quality of Opponents report details the combined aptitude of opposing lineups by way of OPS, and Wilson ranks 144 out of 144 and 147 out of 147 starters in the last two years. While David Price's opponents combined for an OPS of 773 in 2011, Wilson's put up a 728 showing. In 2010, it was Brandon Morrow taking the heaviest beating in the AL East and the AL (773), while Wilson's opponents were at 733.
Wilson has been great the last two years, there is no doubt about that. But he would have been less great had he faced tougher opponents far more often. This isn't a piece going out of its way to say he would pitch like he did this past October against the Yankees, Jays, or Rays every time out, but is merely there to say that, with the Red Sox coming up against the luxury tax even without another major five- or six-year deal for a starter in the works, being mindful of the fact that Wilson will not be exactly like who he has been in Texas the past two years is fine. It's going to take a huge commitment to sign Wilson, who is the same age John Lackey was when he was a free agent. Should something go amiss, or his command vanishes -- and command, though he has it in spades, is what Wilson is all about -- whoever signs him would be left footing a hefty bill for a long time for a guy who wasn't signed because of his stuff.
There would be nothing wrong with signing Wilson if the money was there, but given he is basically the only big-time starter available, the market is likely to get a little out of control. He will get one more year than he should, if not two more, and for likely $18 million or so per year. Not being involved in that, given Boston's other long-term commitments and present-day needs, is understandable.