While a couple of trades were executed for seemingly reasonable prices yesterday, the asking price on deals has generally seemed higher than in past years. With that in mind, the Dodgers took a step to try and improve their club without making Casey Blake for Carlos Santana Part Duex by signing free-agent reliever Brian Wilson. It’s a no-risk deal on both sides, and if it works it could pay dividends for the Dodgers down the stretch.
First, there is the Dodgers to consider. Looking at their bullpen from a full-season perspective, you would think they definitely need a lot of help. For the season, their 99 FIP- as a unit ranks just 24th. But over the past 30 days, they’ve been much better. Javy Guerra, Matt Guerrier, Peter Moylan, Shawn Tolleson and Josh Wall have all been either demoted, excised or injured in that span, and the ‘pen has picked up the pieces quite well. Kenley Jansen and J.P. Howell have understandably been good, and it has nice to see Ronald Belisario rebound as well, but the big surprise has been Paco Rodriguez. The second-round pick was expected to move fast, and was ranked 14th in the Dodgers’ system by Marc Hulet this offseason, but he has still exceeded expectations. His 1.07 FIP against lefties this year ranks sixth in the game, and fifth among relievers. It’s a small sample, obviously, but it’s still encouraging, particularly since he has been billed as a lefty specialist.
With those four relievers, the Dodgers have a good core moving forward. But they are still rostering Brandon League and Carlos Marmol, and that is a problem. League is probably going nowhere, as it would take some stones for general manager Ned Colletti to dump him in the first year of a three-year contract to which he signed him, but Marmol is certainly expendable. If Wilson can contribute, the Dodgers could feel free to kick Marmol aside. If Wilson can contribute even at his 2011 level it would give the Dodgers a pretty sweet bullpen moving forward.
The big question is can Wilson contribute? He hasn’t pitched in over a year, is coming off of his second Tommy John surgery, and he is even farther removed from his dominant period. At his best — which was essentially 2009-10 — he worked a 95-96 mph fastball, and would mix in a pretty effective slider as well. At his best, he was death to both lefties and righties, though he has always walked lefties more frequently.
Of course, no one is expecting Wilson to be at his best. Reliever dominance is often a fleeting thing, and Wilson could serve as Exhibit A in that regard. From 2006-2008 he walked greater than four batters per inning, and in 2011 he walked more than five per inning. In between, he kept his walk rate under better control, and he was a monster. His 4.7 WAR was tops among relievers during those two seasons. His 74 shutdowns were also tops in the game, and his +56 SD-MD was second only to Rafael Soriano.
In 2011, Wilson started losing some juice on his four-seam fastball. It was still an effective offering, but since he wasn’t able to gun it up to 99-100 any longer, it didn’t bring as many strikeouts. Wilson adjusted — he began featuring his two-seamer far more prominently than he had in the past, and while it didn’t get the swings and misses we would love to see, it did get ground balls. Wilson’s ground ball percentage climbed back over 50% and his fly ball percentage plummeted. He wasn’t suddenly a groundball specialist — his 52.7% GB% ranked 28th out of 134 qualified relievers, but he was nowhere near the top 10 — but it did help him stay effective.
The real concern with Wilson then is his walk rate, which essentially gives him the same bugaboo that exists with Marmol. He has never had trouble getting batters to chase out of the strike zone, it’s getting the ball in the zone that is the issue. In ’11, only 10 qualified relievers had a lower Zone % (according to Pitchf/x) than did Wilson. If he can remedy this issue and keep his velocity somewhat reasonable, the signing should be a win-win — the Dodgers get a cog in their bullpen that can push Marmol aside and Wilson gets to pump new light into his once-shining star at home in Hollywood. And there is reason to think he can, otherwise he wouldn’t have had three offers, as was reported. If not, the Dodgers will be right where they are, and where they are is still pretty good.