Coveted Wilson hits open market with intrigue

Gonzalez: Coveted Wilson hits market with intrigue

After his Rangers were painfully eliminated in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, C.J. Wilson addressed a mob of reporters in the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium and the conversation turned, naturally, to his looming free agency. Wilson, the former fifth-round Draft pick and little-known reliever, had never been through that process. He had never been this popular, this coveted.

Wilson didn't know what to think.

"It's foreign to me," Wilson said that Friday night, delivering a quote that is by now a classic. "I don't know how it's going to work. I don't know if I'm going to get a text saying, 'X-amount of years; are you in or out?' I have no clue. I don't know if someone is going to be like, 'Yo, we're going to get you your own blimp; no matter how bad traffic is, we will blimp your butt to the field.' I literally don't have any idea what's out there."

With full-fledged free agency having kicked off at 12:01 a.m. ET on Thursday, we can finally begin to find out.

Even in a class that includes Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, Wilson may be the most intriguing free agent of all, simply because of how much his position and circumstance can boost his market value. Is he the type of pitcher who should command something in the neighborhood of nine figures and can adequately serve as a rotation anchor for years to come? That's a determination many general managers will attempt to make for themselves in the coming weeks.

If nothing else, Wilson is an expert on timing.

With CC Sabathia agreeing to an extension with the Yankees, the only comparable free-agent starter to Wilson may be Japanese standout Yu Darvish, who's younger and has more upside, but is also more risky and probably as expensive because of his potential posting fee. After Wilson and Darvish comes -- in no particular order -- Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt and Mark Buehrle, with no real difference-makers thereafter.

Translation: This is a pretty shallow talent pool of starters.

So shallow that teams will be begging Javier Vazquez to scrap plans to retire at age 35.

So shallow that if you take Vazquez out of the equation, the fourth-ranked available starter in terms of Wins Above Replacement is none other than Bartolo Colon.

And so shallow that plenty of clubs will be falling all over themselves to sign Wilson, a fine pitcher but hardly an ace.

The Rangers would love to have him back, and there appears to be mutual interest.

The Yankees are willing to spend (when are they not?) and badly want to improve their starting pitching.

The Marlins are looking to make a splash heading into their new ballpark.

The Blue Jays could use another starter and have a real opportunity to start making some real noise in the American League East.

The Padres reside very close to Wilson's birthplace of Newport Beach, Calif., and boast a pitcher-friendly ballpark.

The Nationals have been seeking a frontline veteran starter for years.

The Red Sox, Twins, Orioles, Rockies and Royals could use some serious help in Wilson's department.

And who knows which other team will come out of nowhere?

The question is how much money will Wilson command.

Wilson isn't in the same realm as the aces who have earned huge contracts in recent years, like Johan Santana in the 2007 offseason (six years, $137.5 million), Sabathia in '08 (seven years, $161 million) and Cliff Lee in 2010 (five years, $120 million).

Two good comparisons that have been mentioned, in terms of age and stature, are A.J. Burnett and John Lackey, who each used free agency to ink five-year, $82.5 million deals. But Wilson has two factors that may boost his value even higher.

1. He's entering free agency in a year with very little available starting pitching to choose from.

2. Like the owners of the five-largest contracts for a pitcher -- Sabathia, Santana, Barry Zito, Mike Hampton and Lee, respectively -- he throws with his left hand.

For me, Wilson's case screams pros-and-cons list.

Pros

• Wilson has been strong and steady in his first two seasons as a starter, posting a 31-15 record, a 3.14 ERA and 376 strikeouts in a span of 427 1/3 innings. His 10.5 WAR is third highest among starters during that time, and he sports a 3.70 ERA at the hot, hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington.

• Because Wilson has only been a Major League starting pitcher for two seasons, he's rather fresh for a soon-to-be 31-year-old. Since '06, Wilson has averaged just over 121 innings per season if you include a short stint in the Minors and two World Series runs.

• And since Wilson is still relatively new to that role, he may still be trending upward. At least that's what he hinted at while improving in almost every category this past season.

Cons

• First and foremost, it's Wilson's struggles in the postseason. He has a 4.82 ERA in 10 games (nine starts) in the playoffs the past two seasons. This year, he went 0-3, posted a 5.79 ERA in 28 innings and didn't register a quality start in five chances.

• Wilson puts a lot of hitters on base, mostly via the base on balls. Over the past two seasons, Wilson has walked 167 batters, fourth most in the Majors. In that span, 37 starters who qualified had a lower WHIP.

• Wilson came off a year in which he was the No. 1 starter, but was really only an ace by default in Texas. On how many other premier clubs would he have been first, or even second, in the rotation?

This offseason, the question for teams with money to spend and a desire for top-flight starting pitching seems to be: Do you go all-in on Wilson, or use the trade market to find the answers instead?

Unknowns aside, though, Wilson can rest assured about two things regarding his own free agency: He'll be coveted, and he won't come cheap.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.