So, What Should The Cubs Do With Free-Agent-To-Be Justin Wilson?

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So, What Should The Cubs Do With Free-Agent-To-Be Justin Wilson?

Chicago Cubs

Although the Cubs bullpen was a strength this season – their collective 3.35 ERA led the National League (2nd in MLB) – there are plenty of concerns heading into 2019.

To hit on some of those concerns quickly … Brandon Morrow finished the season injured, as did Pedro Strop. Carl Edwards Jr. developed severe control problems, and the same could probably be said of Brian Duensing. Steve Cishek was used a TON, and his production may have suffered for it. You can never know if guys like Jorge De La Rosa or Jesse Chavez will (1) come back and (2) be half as effective as they were this year. You cannot count on the Cubs’ 2019 Minor League fill-in types having as much immediate success as that group did in 2018. Concerns aplenty.

And then there’s something that could be an additional concern, or could be an answer to those concerns: what to do about Justin Wilson?

The 31-year-old reliever came to the Cubs half-way through the 2017 season and had absolutely awful results (5.09 ERA, 20.9% BB rate). Indeed, despite his history as a closer with plenty of success, Wilson didn’t even generate enough confidence to get himself onto the NLDS roster last year.

Wilson bounced back in a big way this season (3.46 ERA, 3.64 FIP), though still had some relatively significant command problems (14.0%). But everything else he provided – from a strong 29.2% strikeout rate, to a 28.4% hard-hit rate, to his 11.3% infield fly ball rate – made him a perfectly useable, even in big situations, late-inning reliever.

But the question remains: now that he’s a free agent, do the Cubs try to re-sign him?

I think, in general, the Cubs plan to add to their bullpen this winter. Maybe even significantly. Besides the fact that every competitive team needs to address this very fickle positional group annually, the Cubs have some obvious issues to consider (as described above). But this decision won’t be made in a vacuum, either. Wilson was good frequently, but struggled mightily often. And with a huge free agent relief class like the incoming group, it’ll be hard to justify too big of a deal.

Here are just some of the notable, available relievers this winter, ranked by WAR in 2018 and including their age next season:

Adam Ottavino (33 years old, 2.0 WAR)
Jeurys Familia (29, 1.8)
David Robertson (34, 1.5)
Craig Kimbrel (31, 1.5)
Jesse Chavez (35, 1.2)
Oliver Perez (37, 1.1)
Tony Sipp (35, 0.9)
Zach Duke (36, 0.9)
Brad Brach (33, 0.7)
Joe Kelly (31, 0.7)
Sergio Romo (36, 0.5)
Jake Diekman (32, 0.5)
Justin Wilson (31, 0.5)
Tyler Clippard (34, 0.5)
Shawn Kelley (35, 0.5)
Andrew Miller (34, 0.4)
Kelvin Herrera (29,0.4)
Mark Melancon (34, 0.3) – (opt out)
Greg Holland (33, 0.3)
Tony Barnette (35, 0.3)
Aaron Loup (31, 0.3)
Jonny Venters (34, 0.3)
Adam Warren (31, 0.3)
John Axford (36, 0.2)
Bud Norris (34, 0.2)
Ryan Madson (38, 0.2)
Jeanmar Gomez (31, 0.2)
Zach Britton (31, 0.1)
Santiago Casilla (38, 0.1)
Cody Allen (30, 0.0)
Jorge De La Rosa (38, 0.0)
Fernando Salas (34, 0.0)

Some names are more attractive than others, but there are some legitimate stars in there (Craig Kimbrel, David Robertson, Adam Ottavino) including some other talented guys, whom the Cubs have had their eyes on in the past (De La Rosa, Zach Britton, Adam Warren, Greg Holland, Andrew Miller, Wilson, Chavez, etc.). Needless to say, it’s not as though Wilson is the only option.

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

And even though he had a disastrous second-half of 2017, relievers with his pedigree (big K-stuff, plenty of weak contact, previous experience as a closer) tend to get at least two to three-year deals in the $6-$8M per year range, right? Do you want him back at that level, knowing his upside, but also his risk?

I think, yeah, you probably do, especially if you can get him for just two years and $12-14M. In fact, I think that’s probably a no-brainer, such that he’ll likely get more. It’s a risky deal given what he could be, sure, but he made a lot of improvements this season. And perhaps more importantly, he has experience closing, which I think we all know could come in handy if Morrow is the 9th inning man again next summer (hopefully Pedro Strop and *at least* one other big-time relief addition mitigate against that, but we saw how things turned out this year).

One other consideration is that Wilson has been an extremely healthy pitcher throughout his career. Check out his inning totals season-by-season:

2013: 73.2 IP
2014: 60.0 IP
2015: 61.0 IP
2016: 58.2 IP
2017:  58.0 IP
2018: 54.2 IP

That sort of durability has inherent value, as well.

Wilson is going to have suitors out there, however much you think his second half of 2017 will pollute the well. For the most part in his career, he’s been consistently good and durable. He has value. He’s relatively young. There’s familiarity there. If the numbers make sense for the Cubs, re-upping would be just fine.

However, if his value in the market trends up into that three to four-year deal range? Like the (now-disastrous) four-year, $30.5 million deal lefty Brett Cecil signed with the Cardinals a couple years ago? Then I think it would be more prudent to look to the rest of the deep reliever market.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami