Posted: Thursday October 13, 2011 10:05AM ; Updated: Thursday October 13, 2011 1:16PM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>FIVE CUTS

Wilson can send Rangers to World Series but how valuable is he?

Story Highlights

C.J. Wilson is earning himself a massive payday while Nelson Cruz is scalding hot

Theo Epstein built a winner in Boston; now he can focus on rebuilding the Cubs

The ineffectiveness of their three best starters doomed the Red Sox in September

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C.J. Wilson
C.J. Wilson could become the second straight ace lefty to bolt Texas as a free agent after helping them go deep into October.
AP

DETROIT -- Texas lefthander C.J. Wilson, who can pitch the Texas Rangers to their second straight American League pennant on Thursday afternoon, looks like the best available free agent starting pitcher option this winter. That's assuming CC Sabathia, who can opt out of his contract, works out a new deal with the Yankees, and projecting that Yu Darvish is considered a greater risk given the poor track record of pitchers transitioning from Nippon Pro Baseball to the major leagues.

But when you spend $100 million -- and yes, Wilson's value is in that ballpark -- you should be buying more certainty than Wilson represents.

Wilson's best trait might be timing -- he is the best starting pitcher in a thin market in an offseason in which none of the nine biggest spending teams in baseball won a postseason series. But Wilson has been a full-time starter for only two years, has walked more batters in that time than all but three pitchers in baseball (Gio Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ryan Dempster) and, as he takes the ball in ALCS Game 5, doesn't have the Cliff Lee halo effect of pitching well in the postseason. In six career postseason starts entering Thursday's game, Wilson is 1-3 with a 4.76 ERA.

"I've worked my whole life to get to this point," Wilson said about keeping his focus on the ALCS and not free agency. "So I'm not going to, like, misappropriate any mental resources toward the future. The only future for me is tomorrow. That's the only thing I'm worried about right now."

So why is Wilson worth $100 million? He is clearly a better pitcher than John Lackey and A.J. Burnett, who pulled down $82.5 million contracts as free agents from the Red Sox (after 2009) and Yankees (after 2008), respectively, and Barry Zito, who secured $126 million from the Giants after the 2006 season. And Wilson's numbers for the past two years (non-October version) resemble those of Lee in his two runup years to free agency.

Wilson's annual average value slots between Lackey/Burnett ($16.5 million per year) and Sabathia ($23 million), and excepting the age difference, exceeds Zito ($18 million). At first blush it might seem like a guy who has been starting only two years with control and postseason issues can't possibly be a $100 million pitcher. But when you look at the two-year runups to free agency for top pitchers recently, you see that a five-year, $100 million deal looks like it's in play.

Of course, you can argue that the deals for Zito, Lackey and Burnett were gross overpayments and lousy values, but that doesn't change the power of precedents.

Two-year Totals Entering Free Agency
Pitcher Age W-L ERA ERA+ IP BB Contract Years Total AAV
Wilson 31 31-15 3.14 140 427 1/3 167 N/A -- --
Sabathia 26 36-17 2.95 148 494 96 7 $161M $23M
Lee 32 26-22 3.20 132 444 61 5 $120M $24M
Lackey 31 23-13 3.79 117 339 2/3 87 5 $82.5M $16.5M
Zito 26 30-23 3.85 114 449 1/3 188 7 $126M $18M
Burnett 31 28-18 3.93 110 387 152 5 $82.5M $16.5M

2. Blueprint is strange, but results are right for Rangers

The Texas Rangers are one win away from the World Series, and if you've been watching this ALCS, you might be wondering by now, "How the heck has this happened?" Nothing about the way they win baseball games is part of a blueprint anybody is going to co-opt. Watching how the Rangers win is like watching a Fellini film. It's not immediately apparent that it makes sense, but somehow it adds up to something that works, especially in an entertaining sense. If you need help deciphering the latest version of Texas baseball, here are some explanations.

• They win with mediocre starting pitching. Game 4 starter Matt Harrison never saw the sixth inning. What else is new? Texas is one win from the pennant even though its starters have a 5.11 ERA, none have gone deeper than six innings into any of the team's eight postseason games and only one has lasted even that long.

Somehow, the Rangers have won five postseason games already while getting five innings or fewer from their starters. Only one team ever had more such weird wins in one postseason: the World Series-winning Angels of 2002, with seven. Don't worry. Texas has as many as five more possible wins to hunt them down.

• Alexi Ogando gave up a game-tying home run to Brandon Inge on an 0-2 pitch. You want to talk strange? You have to go back to Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts to find fireworks that came from a more unusual pairing. Ogando had never allowed a home run in his career on an 0-2 pitch (74 at-bats). Inge had one home run in his career on 0-2 counts in 404 at-bats and had exactly zero home runs this year in 171 at-bats against righthanders. Somehow the Rangers survived that anomaly, too.

• Ron Washington, who can make your head hurt with the way he runs games, became the first manager in postseason history to order an intentional walk with the bases empty and less than two outs. He put Miguel Cabrera, the potential winning run, on base in the eighth inning of Game 4. He basically did not have the confidence that reliever Mike Adams could keep Cabrera in the ballpark.

It was the 10th postseason intentional walk with the bases empty, but all previous nine (involving Greg Luzinski, Barry Bonds four times, Frank Thomas, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez twice) occurred with two outs. Victor Martinez put Washington out further on a thin limb by sending Cabrera to third with a single.

Of course, the Rangers survived that near catastrophe as well. Nelson Cruz saved the series and his manager's reputation by throwing out Cabrera at the plate with a textbook throw from rightfield after catching a flyball hit by Delmon Young.

If nothing else, this has been a highly entertaining ALCS. Two extra-inning games, a third decided by one run, great energy from the fans in the ballparks, curious strategy, too much rain, injuries, clutch pitching and clutch home runs. Welcome to Rangers baseball.

Said Adams, "I'm losing years off my life watching these games."

3. Cruz-ing through October

Oh, and there's one more reason why the Rangers win postseason games: their closer, Nelson Cruz. Yes, Neftali Feliz is their traditional closer, but Cruz is a closer with a bat in his hands. In four games he hit four home runs in 14 at-bats, became the first player ever to hit a postseason walk-off grand slam, and became the first player ever with two extra inning home runs in the same postseason series.

There is hot for a hitter, and then there is Cruz hot, which is a whole new gradient of heat when it comes to swinging the bat.

"It's pretty incredible," teammate David Murphy said. "There's Nellie, and then there's Postseason Nellie."

Cruz now has 10 home runs in 89 postseason at-bats. His postseason slugging percentage is .708.

Remember, Cruz bats seventh in the Texas lineup. Maybe this is exactly the kind of strange postseason the Rangers want. After a year in which runs per game fell to the lowest level since 1992, runs actually are up seven percent in the postseason (9.19 per game) as compared to the regular season (8.57). Runs easier to come by in October? Welcome to bizarro baseball.

4. Why Epstein is smart to leave Red Sox

Theo Epstein appears gone from Boston to Chicago. It may not be official yet -- as a source close to negotiations between Boston and Chicago said yesterday, "tread lightly" on the deal-is-done rhetoric -- but Epstein is too far down the road of an exit to turn back now. It may seem that the Great September Collapse and the ouster of manager Terry Francona instigated Epstein's defection.

But the forces of this move have been in the works for months. When Epstein took the Boston GM job in 2003, he had in mind 10 years as just the right kind of framework for keeping at a brutally demanding job, especially in the Boston fishbowl. It was not the job to take into retirement.

The early years of his tenure consumed enormous creative energy, as he and bright young minds such as Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod, Josh Byrnes, Peter Woodfork, Ben Cherington, Craig Shipley and, later, Mike Hazen and others built a dynamic organization on high intellect and enthusiasm. It was an inspiring time, a kind of youthful revolution. The payroll was $100 million in 2003, and the expectations in New England back then were that somehow, somewhere, things would go wrong.

Epstein leaves behind a different culture. Now the payroll has swollen by 70 percent, the organization is virtually imprisoned by the weight of a sellout streak at Fenway Park and its regional sports network ratings. Meanwhile, Epstein got married and fathered a son.

The architecture of the job ceased a few years ago. There is no more building in Boston, only maintaining, like running a factory at peak output 24/7.

Epstein was intrigued about the Cubs job before the September collapse, as would any general manager in the business. He would probably be the Cubs' GM today even if Boston made it into the postseason and went out in the first round.

What Epstein needed was something Boston could no longer provide: the challenge of the build, not to mention a life that afforded more sanity and room to breathe.

When the season for Boston ended not just in defeat but in ugliness -- anger, finger-pointing, toxicity -- manager Terry Francona made for the exit while he still had his health somewhat intact, and Epstein retreated to a week of hard soul-searching. Francona's exit pushed Epstein closer to a decision to start somewhere else. He couldn't run a managerial search when he didn't know if he wanted to be there himself. The search should belong to Cherington, the heir apparent who has paid his dues.

Epstein was proud of what he helped build in Boston, and he knew the fresh anger of one ugly month could not tear down almost a decade of construction, though the critics would want to do just that. So he debated whether to keep feeding the beast of what baseball is in Boston, or, for the needs of career rebirth and longevity, to take on another challenge where the air was cleaner. The Cubs job was unlike anything else -- far tougher than what he found in Boston, where the infrastructure was much more established than what he will find in Chicago.

It was the right move and the eventual move for Epstein to leave his hometown for another professional challenge. He no longer will answer to his mentor, Larry Lucchino, as he did in Baltimore, San Diego and Boston. Their combined skills in building both a team and a brand were remarkable, but not without the tension when strong intellectual wills collide. Lucchino should be proud that the executive he raised was strong enough to leave.

5. Questions remain about collapse in Boston

Let's get something straight while Boston devolves into a muddy mess while trying to rationalize one of the greatest collapses in history: The Red Sox blew it because of their starting pitching. It has nothing to do with a manager's personal habits, and to suggest otherwise requires actual hard evidence.

Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey started 17 games after Aug. 27. The Red Sox went 5-12 in those games and those three pitchers took the ball into the seventh inning only five times while winning three games and posting a 6.34 ERA.

This is not to suggest Francona gets off the hook. It suggests, while the conditioning and preparation for the pitchers legitimately comes into question, the manager must share in the responsibility of such a breakdown.

So the questions for Francona are not about his medicine cabinet or home life. The ones that need to be asked -- and are still unanswered - are specific baseball questions about how this team, like spoiled, sullen teenagers, got away from him. For instance:

• Did Francona knowingly allow the culture of sloth and gluttony (the in-game drinking, junk food binging and video game playing reported by the Boston Globe is damning, even in good times)? And how did the front office not know about it, suggesting a key breakdown in the integration of field and front office operations?

• The pitchers' conditioning clearly suffered, and it has been suggested that a strength coach cannot be responsible for getting millionaires to work harder. But where is the manager? Did he intervene?

• How much did the Red Sox miss John Farrell, the former pitching coach who took the job as manager of the Blue Jays? His replacement, Curt Young, comes across here as a substitute teacher who has no shot at controlling the room.

These are real baseball questions with real impact on September, as opposed to personal innuendoes. Late in the year, even before the collapse gathered its negative energy that became terminal, a Red Sox source told me the starting pitchers -- virtually the whole lot of them -- had grown toxic, adopting a nasty anti-media stance and sullen, cynical outlook. I didn't think much of it at the time in terms of the dynamic of how they played on the field, but it's easy to imagine in hindsight how it may have contributed to the inability of everyone involved -- manager, players, front office -- to stop the negative energy once it began accumulating.

 
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