Would a Healthy Brian Wilson Be an Option for New York Yankees at Closer?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 1, 2012

April 12, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Brian Wilson delivers a pitch during the ninth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.  The Giants won 4-2.  Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE
Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

Imagine in your head, if you will, San Francisco Giants right-hander Brian Wilson.

Now imagine him shorn of his beard and wearing pinstripes.

The word you're now searching for is "bizarre." What's even more bizarre is that this image could become a reality at some point in the near future.

Wilson on the New York Yankees. Yes, it could happen.

This is not according to sources, mind you, for I have none. This is good, old-fashioned speculation that has more legs than you probably believe.

When it comes to the Yankees' closer role, all options are open now that Rafael Soriano is a free agent after opting out of his contract on Wednesday. He's seeking a multi-year deal worth an excess of $14 million per year, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. The Yankees (understandably) don't seem overly willing to give Soriano a deal like that.

Complicating matters for the Yankees, however, is the fact that Mariano Rivera is suddenly on the fence about returning in 2013. He insisted back in May after he tore his ACL that he would be back, but the word from Andrew Marchand of ESPNNewYork.com is that Rivera recently told Yankees GM Brian Cashman that he's considering just hanging up his spikes for good.

Maybe that's what Mo is really thinking. It's either that, or maybe he's playing hard-to-get as part of a negotiating ploy, a notion forwarded by ESPN's Buster Olney in a recent Insider piece. Rivera may not be willing to settle for much less than the $15 million he made in 2012.

If so, the Yankees' prospects for their closer role in 2013 are suddenly pretty bleak. On the one hand, they have a quality reliever who wants Rivera-in-his-prime money. On the other hand, they have an old man coming off a major injury who may not be willing to work for cheap. This old man could also just retire and leave the Yankees left standing empty-handed.

Thus, the Yankees may have no choice but to turn to alternative options at some point down the road. And unfortunately for them, there aren't many of them out there.

The most accomplished closer on the free-agent market is Jose Valverde, and the Yankees know first-hand how awful he was by the end of the 2012 season. The safest bet is probably Jonathan Broxton, but he doesn't have the same hard stuff he featured earlier in his career.

Beyond these two are injury reclamation types, two of them being Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria, both of whom are coming off Tommy John surgery. Since the track record for pitchers in their first year back from Tommy John surgery is at best mixed, the Yankees would be rolling the dice with either one of them.

And this is where Wilson enters the equation. If the Yankees are going to role the dice on a closer coming back from Tommy John surgery, why not he of the ridiculous black beard?

As for how we know that Wilson will be available this winter, well, the truth is that we really don't. All we know is that the Giants are going to have to make some sort of decision on Wilson, and the word from Jim Bowden of ESPN and SiriusXM is that some sort of decision is coming very soon:

Bruce Bochy just told us that he and Brian Sabean are meeting tomorrow and among the topics will be what to do with Brian Wilson XM 89

— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) November 1, 2012

According to ESPN's Buster Olney, Wilson could make anywhere between $8 and $10 million in arbitration after collecting an $8.5 million salary in 2012. That's a lot of money for the Giants to pay for a pitcher they don't need anymore.

Sergio Romo took over the closer's role at the end of the season, and he ended up allowing only one earned run in his final 20 appearances between the end of the regular season and the postseason. He's due for a pay raise in arbitration this winter, but it's doubtful that he'll get anything close to the $8.5 million salary Wilson made in 2012. That makes Romo both a more effective alternative and a cheaper alternative to Wilson.

One thing the Giants could do is just non-tender Wilson and make him a free agent. That would give them the opportunity to re-sign him at a bargain price without having to go through the arbitration process.

The other thing they can do, as noted by Olney, is trade him.

Because Wilson is coming off a major injury, the Giants wouldn't be able to demand that much for him in a trade. Factor in the salary he could make in arbitration, and the Giants have even less negotiating power. They'd have to take what they could get for Wilson while also hoping to shed most or all of the money owed to him.

My guess is that the best thing the Giants could get for Wilson would be a mid-level minor leaguer and/or maybe some cash. The Yankees are one of a million (OK, 29 at most) teams that could pull off a trade like that.

Or the Yankees could just wait for the Giants to non-tender Wilson and then deal with him as a free agent.

Regardless of how the Yankees could acquire Wilson, the question either way is whether they should want to acquire him. Is he the best option for their vacant closer role? At the very least, is he the option with the most upside?

Well, let's be clear on one thing: There really is no "best" option for the Yankees' closer job at this juncture. Soriano surely would be the best, but not for the kind of money he wants. Rivera would be by far the best if he was healthy, but he's not. The free-agent market is weak, and injury reclamation projects like Soria and Madson are in the same boat as Wilson.

So you really have to ask who has the highest upside. And, really, this is the only reason I'm bringing up Wilson at all.

When Wilson was last healthy in 2010, he was one of the very best closers in baseball. He saved 48 games in 53 chances with an 11.2 K/9 and an opponents' OPS of .597. He was money in the postseason as well, allowing no earned runs and striking out 16 in 11.2 innings of work.

To put Wilson's 2010 dominance in some perspective, just take a look at what Soriano did this year. He had a 9.2 K/9 and a .639 opponents' OPS, and he struck out only two hitters in 4.1 innings in the postseason. 

The obvious counterargument here is that Wilson isn't healthy, and that's very much true. However, he told Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com way back in April that he wasn't all that healthy in 2011 either, and managed to save 36 games and pitch a total of 55 innings while compiling a decent 3.11 ERA.

Wilson was also still pitching even after he had blown out his arm earlier this year. He said he knew he had hurt his elbow pretty severely while on the mound against the Colorado Rockies on April 12, yet he stayed in the game and proceeded to retire the side to earn a save. 

If Wilson can pitch through pain this effectively, then perhaps he deserves the benefit of the doubt in regards to his ability to pitch through some rust.

There is, however, one problem.

By all accounts, it takes a full 12 months to recover from Tommy John surgery. Wilson had his in late April, meaning he may not be ready to return to the mound until the end of April in 2013. Any team that trades for Wilson will thus be lining up to wait until a month has gone past before it can finally use him.

This is where fellow injury reclamation projects Soria and Madson have an advantage over Wilson. Soria had his surgery in early April last year, and Madson had his in late March. Both of them should be ready to return to the mound before the bearded one.

If the choice is between Soria, Madson and Wilson, I don't prefer any of the three over the others if I'm Brian Cashman. Wilson has the most upside of the three of them, but the fact that he had his surgery later than Soria and Madson pretty much robs him of whatever edge he may have.

As such, I wouldn't go after the guy I want the most if it came down to a choice between those three. I'm going after the easiest guy to acquire and then I'm taking my chances.

The Yankees, of course, would prefer not to take their chances. Taking chances is for teams that have nothing to lose, and the Yankees are never one of those teams. Brian Cashman can throw more money around than most GMs, but he can't make moves that could possibly compromise the club's chances of making the playoffs. It's always in his interest to play things safe.

As such, my best guess is that Cashman is hoping that Soriano has a change of heart and lowers his price tag. Of all the pitchers the Yankees could possibly acquire to close for them in 2013, Soriano should be (and presumably still is) Plan A.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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