Some surprising news in the Post Gazette this morning, as DK reports that the Pirates and Jack Wilson have had “preliminary talks regarding a contract extension.” I think that most of us expected that Wilson’s time would be up here after this season, as the $8.4 million option that the Pirates hold on him next year is just a bit too pricey for a team in the Pirates’ situation. According to the report, Wilson went to the Pirates to open talks up, which I assume would mean that he’s willing to take a pay cut starting with next year’s big pay day.
It’s an interesting idea. I’ll admit that when it became clear that a big part of the Rays dramatic turnaround last year was due to huge improvements in the field, I viewed Wilson a bit differently. Anyone that’s read this blog for a long time knows that I think Wilson is overpaid and generally overrated by Pirate fans, but when I heard about the extension talks late last night, my reaction actually wasn’t universely negative. Should it have been? Or would a Wilson extension not be the worst idea in the world?
There is some value in having a good defensive shortstop, even if he’s not a great hitter. My general dislike (or at least the perception that I dislike Wilson) is more rooted in Dave Littlefield’s complete misunderstanding of what Jack Wilson was than anything else. The old front office misinterpreted his 2004 season as a breakout at the plate and not an anomaly, they overvalued his defense, and they gave him a pricey extension to match. In effect, they were building around a player who’s a complimentary piece at best.
But at, say, $4-5 million a year, is he a value for the Pirates? He does provide a good glove at short and it would be nice to have him there to help out the young pitchers, especially if the Pirates find enough offense elsewhere in the lineup. I’m still not really sold on this idea, though, and it’s for a couple different reasons. The first is Jack’s age. He’s 31 now and by the time the Pirates are ready to contend for anything, he’ll be 33 or 34 (if we’re lucky). Shortstop is not an easy position to play and given Jack’s recent injury history, I don’t see any reason to think he’s going to be the shortstop he is today even in two or three years. Extending him now because his defense is good now on the assumption that it will still be good in the future is a dangerous gambit.
The second reason is that I think a lot of people misunderstand the Rays surge last year and the role defense played in it. A lot of people kind of took the media’s Ecksteinization of Jason Bartlett and ran with it, crediting him for most of the defense’s (and by some extension, the team’s) turnaround. This misses the point by a wide margin. According to UZR, Bartlett was about a run above average in the field last year. His addition was just one part in a teamwide defensive shift that not only improved their team defense, but did it without costing the team offense. If you have a copy of BP 2009, they extensively detail the Rays defensive upgrades in the chapter on Tampa. I won’t go into as much detail here, but I’ll give a general outline of what they did. Bartlett replaced Brendan Harris, who well below average at short last year. Akinori Iwamura went from third to second, where he replaced a motley crew of defenders lead by the brutal BJ Upton. Upton moved to center full time, eliminating the terrible center field performances by Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young from the equation. The trade of Young also allowed for the excellent fielder Gabe Gross to take over in right field for much of 2008. In the end, the Rays didn’t make a move to just improve at shortstop last year, they made a several moves that improved them at short, second, center field, and right field, and the sum of those moves opened a roster spot for Evan Longoria, who not only killed the ball at the plate, but played incredible defense at third base. That’s a full five out of eight positions that the Rays upgraded defensive personnel at from 2007 to 2008.
The Rays defensive turnaround wasn’t based on getting a good shortstop, it was based on improving positions all over the diamond. That doesn’t mean that locking in a good fielding shortstop is a bad idea, because shortstop is pretty high on the defensive spectrum, but given Wilson’s age and the likelihood of his skills declining, I just don’t see this being a good idea.