Brian Wilson's Dodgers Deal a Perfect Platform for Earning Big Closer's Payday

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 5, 2013

USA Today

It seemed possible that Brian Wilson would be able to find a job as a closer somewhere this winter. Notably, the Detroit News reported that the Tigers were heavily involved with Wilson before turning their attention (also their checkbook) to Joe Nathan.

Now it appears Wilson has settled for the next-best thing: a setup role with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It may not be his ideal job, but it's the kind of thing that could very well lead to his ideal job as soon as next winter.

But first, the news. Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports reported that Wilson and the Dodgers have come to an agreement on a contract, and here are the terms:

Bob Nightengale of USA Today says the option is for a $9 million base salary, so Wilson just agreed to a deal that could pay him at least $19 million over two years. Though he looks destined for a setup role, that's "proven closer" money.

And how do we know that Wilson is meant to be a setup man?

Mainly because the Dodgers used Kenley Jansen as their closer for the bulk of 2013, and he was pretty darn good. Amazing, even.

Upon being named the club's closer by Don Mattingly on June 11, Jansen saved 26 of 29 the rest of the way, posting a 1.41 ERA and holding opponents to a .410 OPS with a 5.6 K/BB ratio. Overall, he finished with a 190 ERA+ and a 6.2 K/BB in 75 appearances. By FanGraphs' WAR, Jansen was just as valuable as Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel.

Jansen's rise to prominence didn't come out of nowhere. He owned a 170 ERA+ in 141 career appearances heading into 2013, mainly thanks to a lethal cutter that had a cult following as early as 2011. One hesitates to make the Mariano Rivera comparison, but—he's basically Mariano Rivera.

It's not entirely set in stone that Wilson will be setting up for Jansen, but Brown says the bearded right-hander understands what's up:

The prospect of being a setup man for Jansen obviously wasn't ominous enough to keep Wilson from agreeing to the deal. And it's easy to see why. The soon-to-be 32-year-old may not close in 2014, but his deal affords him the opportunity to maybe close elsewhere in 2015 and beyond on a multi-year deal.

For starters, the fact that the deal includes a player option and not a team option was likely alluring for him, as it will be up to him whether or not he wants to stick around in 2015 if he has a successful year in 2014.

Further working in Wilson's favor is that it's hard to imagine the Dodgers making him a qualifying offer if he does decline his option. After rising from $13.3 million in 2012 to $14.1 million this year, the qualifying offer may well be worth $15 million next year. Even the Dodgers would likely be hesitant to offer that amount to a guy who, in all likelihood, had succeeded as a mere setup man in 2014.

For that matter, it's not inconceivable that Rafael Soriano will be the one and only reliever to ever get a qualifying offer, as the Texas Rangers didn't even make one to Nathan after his superb 2013 season. The darn things are getting expensive, and clubs know that relievers are only worth so much.

Either way, no qualifying offer would surely be fine with Wilson. That would mean a chance to seek a multi-year deal as a closer without ties to draft-pick compensation, which helps.

Why would clubs look at Wilson as a closer after having just spent the 2014 season as a setup man?

His past would likely be a reason why. Wilson was one of the best in the business between 2008 and 2011, saving 163 games with a 135 ERA+ and a 26.3 strikeout percentage. He was also lights out in the 2010 postseason, giving up no earned runs in 11.2 innings.

Another thing that should help Wilson is the amount of high-leverage innings he's likely to have coming his way in 2014.

When Wilson first joined the Dodgers in late August, they brought him along slowly. Per, the average leverage index (aLI) of his first eight appearances was 0.80.

If that's gibberish to you, aLI measures pressure. Anything above 1.0 is high pressure, and below that is low pressure. Thus, Wilson didn't face a ton of pressure early on in his comeback from his Tommy John operation (his second, to boot) in 2012.

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 11:  Brian Wilson #00 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches during Game One of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on October 11, 2013 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Im
Elsa/Getty Images

Once the Dodgers got the gist that they had something, however, they loosened the leash.

The aLI of Wilson's last 10 regular-season appearances was 1.37. He also didn't pitch earlier than the eighth inning in his six postseason appearances, and overall, his aLI was 1.09. Notably, he was faced with particularly high-pressure situations in Games 1 and 3 of the National League Championship Series.

There should be more where this came from in 2014. Chris Withrow is on the roster and quite capable, but Wilson should have the inside track at being Mattingly's go-to righty in pressure situations. The Dodgers have a tendency to create a lot of those, as their relievers ranked fourth in aLI in 2012 and 10th in 2013.

All Wilson needs to do is take those high-leverage innings and hold up his end of the bargain by pitching more or less like he did in 2013.

On that note, I'll recycle a table from another piece of mine:

Brian Wilson's 2013 Comeback
Regular Season1813.20.660.8826.58.23.3

Is Wilson going to give the Dodgers a whole season of, you know, that? Unless he morphs into 2012 Fernando Rodney or 2013 Koji Uehara, probably not.

There are, however, reasons to be optimistic.

One that should not be overlooked is that Wilson only walked 8.2 percent of the batters he faced. Command is something that can be slow to return after Tommy John. It's encouraging that this wasn't the case with Wilson, especially in light of how he's struggled with his command in the past.

It's also encouraging that Wilson was able to tap into his old velocity when he needed it. As Brooks Baseball can show, he was able to reach back for more heat in September than he was in August and was throwing 95 consistently in the postseason.

Not what Wilson's game needs to be all about velocity at this point, anyway. Here's another recycled table, the data for which comes from Baseball Info Solutions by way of FanGraphs:

Brian Wilson's Pitch Selection
SeasonFastball %Cutter %

Pictured here is a guy who gets it. Wilson's velocity was at its peak between 2008 and 2010. Even before the end of that run was over, he was beginning to wean himself off of traditional hard stuff and onto more of a cutter-heavy approach. It was his primary pitch in 2013, and he also throws a two-seam fastball that has a cult following of its own.

Velocity is something that comes in handy when pitching in relief. But good command and deception via movement can come in handy just as easily. It's admittedly going out on a thin limb to draw conclusions from 2013's small sample, but it appears Wilson can succeed as a command/movement guy just fine. That he apparently still has some velocity to tap into is icing on the cake.

When Mattingly named Jansen his closer last June, there was no defined bridge to the ninth inning. Things stayed that way right up until it started getting apparent in September that Wilson was the missing link. Provided he stays healthy and effective in 2014, he'll be a big part of what should be a solid late-inning core that also includes the underrated Paco Rodriguez.

This is not to suggest that Wilson is going to be worth the $10 million he'll make in 2014. Per FanGraphs' WAR-based value system, only eight relievers were worth that much in 2013. That's not surprising given how one WAR is worth between $5 and $6 million and a "great" relief season is something like two WAR. Very few relievers are that good.

But nobody should be worried about that. Wilson's deal is a short one whether it ends up being one year or two, and these are the Dodgers we're talking about. What the heck do they care about money? They're the Dodgers. 

You certainly won't hear Wilson complaining, anyway. The Dodgers just committed "proven closer" money to him even though it's likely he'll only be setting up for Jansen in 2014, and it's a deal he can get out of to seek a job as a closer next winter if he enjoys lots of success in the coming season. That he'll have done so for a big-name, big-market club would only help.

Of course, there's always the chance that Jansen will get hurt and/or pitch himself out of a job in the ninth inning, opening the door for Wilson to set himself up for a big closer contract as a closer. If that's how things turn out, teams will be ready to throw money at him next winter.

Well, except for maybe the Yankees.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted/linked.


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