Ten million dollar annual contracts for relievers have fallen out of vogue, but leave it to the big-spending Dodgers to spend $10 million a year not just on a reliever, but on a setup man. On Thursday, the team agreed to terms with Brian Wilson on a one-year, $10 million deal with a player option for 2015 that will be worth $8.5 million to $10 million. The 31-year-old righty had discussed the possibility of returning to closing with several teams this winter, but in the end informed the Dodgers of his willingness to set up Kenley Jansen once again, provided he was paid like a closer.
Wilson saved 163 games for the Giants from 2008-2011 before missing nearly all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery. The Dodger signed him in late July, and he pitched well, allowing just one run while striking out 13 in 13 2/3 innings in the regular season, then throwing six scoreless innings with eight strikeouts in the postseason. By that point, he had supplanted the erratic Ronald Belisario as the team's top righty setup man in front of Jansen.
Though he has yet to spend a full season as closer, the 26-year-old Jansen has become one of the game's best, hailed for the rapid improvement of his cutter. A converted catcher, Jansen has delivered a 2.10 ERA while striking out 14.0 per nine since reaching the majors in July 2010. In 2011, he set a single-season record for a reliever by striking out 16.1 per nine, a mark broken by the Braves Craig Kimbrel the following year. He saved 25 games in 2012 but was sidelined by a cardiac arrhythmia late in the year, during which Brandon League took over as closer. The Dodgers kept that arrangement in place as 2013 opened, having signed League to a three-year, $22.5 million extension, but by mid-June, League had four blown saves and a 5.54 ERA, so Jansen regained the job. He finished the year with 28 saves and a career-best 1.88 ERA, not to mention 13.0 strikeouts per nine and an eye-opening 6.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
The Dodgers have every reason to be happy with the job that Jansen is doing, but having failed to iron out League (who finished the year with a 5.30 ERA and didn't even make the postseason roster) and nontendered Belisario earlier this week, they were in need of a reliable righty setup man to complement lefty Paco Rodriguez. Between Belisario's departure and the Tigers agreeing to a two-year, $20 million deal with Joe Nathan earlier this week, the way apparently was paved for Wilson's return. He had reportedly been close to an agreement with Detroit in late November, but wanted to wait longer before making his decision. Prior to that, he had been connected to the Giants, Indians, Rockies, Mariners and Red Sox. The Yankees had expressed interest as well, but through agent Dan Lozano, Wilson publicly spurned them by refusing to shave off his infamous beard to meet the team's strict facial hair policy.
No word about how they felt about his mohawk.
Wilson's jet-black beard and mohawk are just a couple of the many quirks that form his public persona. As he showed with increasing frequency during his seven seasons with the Giants, his yearning for attention can make him a distraction, whether on the mound or off. During the team's 2012 championship run, he seemed to spend almost as much time on camera as a bystander in the dugout as his teammates did on the field. When the Dodgers visited San Francisco in late September, Wilson confronted Giants team president Larry Baer (seated near the home dugout) over having not received his 2012 World Series ring. In turn, the Giants said that Wilson had not responded to repeated phone calls and text messages from team officials inviting him to their ring ceremony back on April 7.
For all of his eccentricity, Wilson can pitch, and by the end of the 2013 season, he had recovered his mid-90s velocity and was generating swings and misses with both his four-seam fastball and his cutter. For his career, he has 171 saves and a 3.10 ERA with 9.5 strikeouts and 0.5 homers per nine, respectively.
Thanks to that resumé, Wilson might have found a team to pay him as much or more money to close as he got from the Dodgers, though it's worth noting that such deals have suddenly become few and far between. According to Cot's Contracts, Nathan's deal with the Tigers is the 14th in which a reliever has reached an average annual value of at least $10 million, and the 23rd in which one has exceeded an AAV of $7 million dollars. Back in 2010, 12 deals above $7 million were in effect, but aside from Nathan and Wilson, those of just three others are on the books now: Rafael Soriano ($14.0 million), Jonathan Papelbon ($12.5 million) and Heath Bell ($9 million). Depending upon the accounting, League might be included in that, but because he signed his extension in October 2012 before officially reaching free agency, his AAV is based on a four-year, $27.5 million package rather than three years and $22.5 million.
As advanced statistical analysis has taken hold on one level or another in most front offices, teams have become more reluctant to pay a class of pitchers whose performances tend to be quite volatile from year to year, and whose values rarely wind up reaching even 2.0 Wins Above Replacement in consecutive seasons. Via Baseball-Reference.com's version of WAR, of the 19 relievers who reached that plateau in 2012, only three — Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Darren O'Day — repeated in 2013, with the latter two coming in at exactly 2.0, the equivalent of about $10-$12 million worth of performance on the open market. Dial back to 2010, when 18 pitchers reached 2.0 WAR; just two, Rivera and Sean Marshall, did so in 2011. From 2011 to 2012, the tally is four — Kimbrel, Jim Johnson, Vinny Pestano and Grant Balfour — out of 24. For that three-year period, just 15 percent (nine out of 61 relievers) repeated at the 2.0 WAR level. The Dodgers, destined to exceed $200 million payroll for the second year in a row, are willing to spend in spite of that trend, and in spite of general manager Ned Colletti's previous overpayments of League (-1.4 WAR in 2013) and Matt Guerrier (-0.4 WAR for the Dodgers from 2011-2013 before being traded to the Cubs). At least this time around, they're getting a pitcher who actually misses bats with some regularity; those two have career strikeout rates of 6.5 per nine or lower. If Wilson isn't somehow pressed into closer duty, he'll equal Soriano as the highest-paid setup man in history, matching the $10 million he earned with the 2011 Yankees in front of up Rivera. He should help the Dodgers at least somewhat, but given that he has only exceeded 2.0 WAR once himself (3.0 in 2010), odds are that they won't get quite what they pay for. They don't appear to be sweating it.