Detroit Tigers Free Agent Target: Brian Wilson


Brian Wilson to Detroit just makes sense.

It isn’t really curious that Brian Wilson would still be on the market: he is an established closer in a world with a serious disconnect between players/agents and general managers as to what an established closer ought to get paid. He’s also a guy coming off a season lost to injury who would be typically fishing for an affordable 1-year contract in order to recover value. In order to recover value, he needs to close (since saves are – at least in the minds of players/agents – what builds reliever value) and he seems to have plenty of offers to not close, or maybe close, but not to definitely close.

Oct 11, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Brian Wilson walks off the field after defeating the Cincinnati Reds to win the 2012 NLDS at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

What is curious is that the last point there would be a deal-breaker between Dave Dombrowski and Brian Wilson. Why on earth would the Tigers refuse to offer him the closer role…? If we assume that the first two points hold – that he’ll sign a relatively affordable one-year contract – he sounds perfect. You see, the thing is, Wilson should either be a tremendous pitcher or be either still hurting or a shell of his former self. This is why other teams have mostly been interested in signing him to a deal that is mostly performance-based incentives or a minor league deal. He isn’t a sure thing. Let’s imagine that there is a 50% chance that he’ll be 2011 Wilson, and a 50% chance that he’ll be 2012 Wilson (in which he only appeared in 2 games). What’s the big deal? Pay him half what you would have paid 2011 Wilson and roll with it.

The thing is, the Tigers currently have a lot of talent but a lot of risk and uncertainty vis a vis the bullpen. There are serious injury risks all over the place (especially from Villarreal and Alburquerque) but serious effectiveness risks from just about everybody. Effectiveness risks are – to clarify things – worse than injury risks. If a guy can’t play, he can’t play and you know he can’t play and you make other plans. If a guy stunk it up you’re going to have to keep throwing him out there for an extended period of time until you’re sure that he’s not better than he looks – and when you do that there is an excellent chance you’ll be wrong. The Marlins last season, for example, let Heath Bell close for a couple of horrible months then bumped him down in the ‘pen pecking order and kept him there after he regained his composure and his effectiveness. A terrible pitcher can do some terrible things to your W-L record, especially a closer. Before his last save opportunity on July 8, Heath Bell took away 3.6 wins by WPA – not relative to an elite closer (or any closer) but relative to a league average pitcher.

I mentioned before that the Tigers find themselves in the unusual position of needing to ensure themselves against risks rather than taking gambles. If everything goes roughly as planned, the Tigers will win their division by a large margin. While anything could happen, the biggest source of downside risk that the Tigers face (and they have upside risk here too – as there is a lot of talent in the ‘pen) is in the bullpen as a whole and especially the closer position. Rondon could be tremendous (and cheap) or he could be genuinely awful (and cheap) – and while there is a decent chance that we’d notice in Spring Training if he was going to be awful all of the other closer possibilities come with big risks too. Coke has struggled with righties and letting him close would mean some suspect middle relief. Dotel has struggled with lefties. Benoit’s homer-itis might have been luck or a slight mechanical issue that has already been fixed, but in the second half last year you’d close your eyes and pray when you saw him take the mound. Villarreal and Alburquerque have been on at times and off at times but are both just as likely to be on the DL as on the 25. Any of them could very well do a solid job as closer – at least as good as the mediocre season we got from 2012 Valverde. But they could all be way, way worse than 2012 Valverde – something closer to 2012 Heath Bell.

The Tigers have enough of a cushion that they might even be able to win the division with a hot mess at closer. But should they risk it? If the Tigers hand the closer role to Brian Wilson – should he prove able – they’d still have all of the options that they have right now on the table. If he’s hurt or if he’s clearly not himself, give Rondon a shot or Al Al a shot or Coke a shot and you’re no worse off than you would have been had you never signed him. If he IS his old self? Then at best you have great talent in the ‘pen from top to bottom and Rondon can sit in Toledo until the inevitable injury to one of the other righties (which may have already happened…). At worst you have guys imploding in lower leverage situations and holes to fill for 7th inning roles – and while that’s bad for a team it isn’t the kind of thing that derails playoff hopes. Most would seem to be saying that Wilson is just too risky right now to sign – but he’s either going to sit on the DL doing an extended rehab or he’s going to pitch well. That only risks money, not wins. And if he’s interested in the promise of a closing job to rebuild value, maybe not even that much money. I’d say that signing Brian Wilson might reduce the Tigers downside risk in the ‘pen by half – which doesn’t seem like a gamble at all.