For years, the Rangers would have killed -- or at least gamed the living hell out of the system -- to have just one pitcher like C.J. Wilson wedged into the topmost slot of their starting rotation. For years, that caliber of pitcher eluded their grasp, with many homegrown hopefuls succumbing to the cruel realities of injuries, insufficient talent, and developmental stagnation, and other externally acquired candidates failing to pan out as hoped.
And now that they finally do have that pitcher, it somewhat feels as though he's pitching for the Rangers on borrowed time.
We can argue back and forth until we're blue in the face about whether Wilson truly can be labeled as a legitimate ace-caliber starting pitcher, but that whole process entails a couple of different problems: (a) because each individual person's idea of what makes an "ace" differs anywhere from just a little to quite a lot, you're not going to have a widely agreed-upon definition that all of the masses find acceptable, and (b) player labels, nice and compact and seemingly informative as they are, usually don't end up being very fair to the players themselves, and are prone to varying degrees of misuse. Technically, Engel Beltre is still a "five-tool outfield prospect." I think you get my point.
But if the qualitative side fails us here, what does the quantitative side have to say? Well, aside from the ridiculous pitching line (8.0 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 11 K, 1 BB) Wilson threw up during yesterday's sold-out series finale against Oakland, we now have Wilson sitting on a 3.01 ERA for the season, with 8.2 strikeouts against 2.9 walks against 0.6 home runs over 209 innings. His present-year 147 ERA+ is on pace to be the fourth-best single-season ERA+ ever compiled by a qualifying Rangers starting pitcher, as well as the best by any Rangers starting since Rick Honeycutt (165 ERA+) back in 1983. Under Baseball Reference's version of the wins above replacement metric, Wilson's 9.2 total bWAR amassed since Opening Day last season are tied for tenth among all major league pitchers. Under FanGraphs' version of the metric, Wilson's 9.7 total fWAR rank ninth.
A largely meaningless, but nevertheless very entertaining statistic: from 2000-07, the Rangers received a grand total of six starts where their designated starting pitcher for a game recorded at least 10 strikeouts -- two starts from Kevin Millwood, and one each from Esteban Loaiza, Colby Lewis, Juan Dominguez, and Vicente Padilla. C.J. Wilson has recorded six 10-strikeout-or-better starts in less than 5½ months this season.
And since the onset of the much fretted-over "three weeks from hell," Wilson has logged 41.2 innings over six starts, delivered a 1.94 ERA, limited opposing batters to a composite .208/.258/.336 showing at the plate, and posted 38 strikeouts against just nine walks. When queried as to how he felt about pitching under pressure following yesterday's start, Wilson remarked: "I love it, because that's what I expect out of myself -- to go out there and throw well. That's all you work for. That's why, in the off-season, you run hills and lift weights, stay hydrated and get your rest. This is what it's all about right here. These last couple weeks are going to be the entire season for us."
So, we would appear to have just about every element here that we would expect an elite, ace-caliber starting pitcher to boast: high-quality, top-10 to -12 performance over multiple seasons backed by all of the desired peripherals, an increasing aptitude for striking people out, an innate hunger to take the ball and deliver in especially big starts against difficult opponents (and the performance to justify handing him the ball), and a significant data point suggesting that he is actually gaining steam instead of losing it, as he mentioned after yesterday's start how he was feeling both strong physically and locked in mechanically. In September. Yeah.
In fact, if we really want to take that final aspect a step further, we can point to Wilson's world-class conditioning, intricately detailed game-prep regimen, and exceptionally cerebral approach to the game, and combine all of those qualities to place Wilson on an even higher pedestal. Baseball boasts better pitchers than Wilson, certainly (so long as Roy Halladay and others of his ilk are still alive and kicking, at least), but this is a truly unique blend of premium, well-conditioned baseball talent and smarts that the Rangers have on their hands ... for another month and a half, at most, should they choose not to pony up the huge bucks that he will deservedly request.
So, again, what do we have really have here? In essence, a top-dozen pitcher who has proven he can pitch in Texas, who is very healthy on the whole (and has the conditioning regimen to fully support that physical state going forward, with his top-flight conditioning also helping to ensure the repeatability of his mechanics and, by extension, his command), who has established himself as dependable and significantly raised both his projected performance floor and ceiling, who has comparatively little mileage on his arm, and who apparently does want to remain in Texas.
And on the 'cons' side, we have the fact that he has only two years of full-time starting experience (which, again, may be a virtue in his case, since that has helped depress the number of innings put on his arm), some conjecture about him possibly rubbing some of his teammates the wrong way, a few supposedly-controversial-but-not-really quotes about the fans and atmospheres in other cities, and an apparent dislike for some media types. Yeah, I am not at all inclined to dock him too many points for those demerits, and I have a certain amount of difficulty wrapping my head around the idea that the Rangers are too obsessed over those details, either.
As far as the speculation over whether C.J. would confer Texas a "hometown discount" -- misleadingly named, since he's a SoCal native -- or would prefer to sign on the West Coast or can possibly be swayed by a lack of state income tax ... well, we all remember very well how this played out with Cliff Lee. Guaranteed money is the driving force, and only if you're within spitting distance of the top offer do the other elements like comfort level and championship-winning odds really come into full play. I am, however, beginning to suspect that the guaranteed money on the Wilson sweepstakes is going to render all of that previous talk about the $85-90 million range moot. If this late-season helium carries over into the post-season, there's a pretty decent chance that we're going to begin talking about numbers in the $100-110 million range in relatively short order.
And if this thing ends up sitting in even the $90-100 million range, and the Rangers really want to make a spirited run at keeping C.J. -- well, it's going to take some very creative roster manipulation just to end up with a major league payroll in the $110-115 million range next season. The greater likelihood is that they would end up soaring into $120 million-plus territory, and I can't sit here right now and tell you in good conscience that I really think they're going to spike payroll by another $25 million next season.
But if we're solely focused on the question of how much we're each willing to see the Rangers pay Wilson, it's getting really difficult for me to objectively look at this entire setup and not want to make him a $100 million pitcher, if that's what it should ultimately take. And if we're going to turn this into an either-or proposition (which it may very well become, given the kind of dollars we're talking about here and the finite nature of the Rangers' payroll), I'm more interested at this point in throwing enormous guaranteed money at Wilson than I am in doing so with that other huge contractual question mark looming out on the horizon -- yeah, the one named Josh Hamilton.