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Prospect Retrospective: C.J. Wilson

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After beginning his major league career in the bullpen, C.J. Wilson of the Angels has now logged four strong seasons as a starting pitcher.

C.J. Wilson
C.J. Wilson
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me about Los Angeles Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson. The reader pointed out that Wilson began his major league career as a reliever and later converted to starting, and was curious about how exactly this happened. Wilson's case is a little bit more complicated than a simple conversion, as we will explore in today's Prospect Retrospective.

C.J. Wilson pitched college ball at Loyola Marymount. He did not have a particularly good season in 2001, posting a 6.09 ERA with a 59/42 K/BB in 65 innings, but he was a two-way player and scouts felt he would improve once he stopped playing the outfield and concentrated on pitching full time.

Drafted in the fifth round by the Texas Rangers, he proved those scouts correct by posting a 0.96 ERA in 38 innings for Pulaski in the Appalachian League, with a sharp 49/9 K/BB ratio, followed by a 3.18 ERA and a 26/9 K/BB in 34 innings for Savannah in the South Atlantic League. He showed a 90 MPH fastball and while his curveball and changeup both needed work, his control improved dramatically once he got into pro ball.

Moved up to Charlotte in the Florida State League for 2002, Wilson posted a 3.06 ERA, went 10-2 in 26 games (15 starts) and posted a 76/41 K/BB ratio. Promoted to Double-A Tulsa late in the year, he posted a 1.80 ERA in five starts with a 17/12 K/BB in 30 innings. His velocity was down a hair and his curveball remained erratic, but he made a large amount of progress with his changeup.

Sabermetrically, I wasn't enamored of his K/BB ratio, which was below average in both High-A and Double-A, not a good sign for a guy who was throwing 88-91 MPH. I gave him a Grade C+ entering 2003, noting that Wilson had considerable potential but needed a consolidation season in the high minors and would struggle if rushed too quickly to the majors.

Wilson spent all of 2002 with Double-A, posting a 5.05 ERA in 21 starts with an 89/38 K/BB in 123 innings, 125 hits allowed. The good news was that his curveball looked very good, especially early in the year. The bad news was that his velocity sagged as the season progressed.

I saw him pitch that July and felt he was laboring and didn't look quite right. Indeed, he was hurting; his elbow bothered him all year. He tried to pitch through it, but it gave out eventually and required Tommy John surgery. I had him as a Grade C entering '04 but didn't put him in the book since he would miss the whole year.

He rehabbed in '04 and came back strong in '05, making 12 starts for Frisco (4.43 ERA, 43/14 K/BB in 45 innings). Promoted to Texas, he made six starts but was used mostly in relief, compiling an ugly 6.94 ERA in 48 innings, giving up 63 hits. He exceeded rookie qualifications so he didn't show up on subsequent prospect lists. Although his performance in the majors was problematic, considering the circumstances (no Triple-A experience, coming off an injury) he did enough to remain in Texas' plans.  

As you know, Wilson spent the next four years in the Rangers bullpen, pitching effectively in '07 and '09 in particular. He moved back into the rotation in 2010, going 15-8, 3.35 with a 170/93 K/BB in 204 innings, 4.3 WAR. He was even better in '11 (16-7, 2.94, 5.4 WAR) before moving on to the Angels as a free agent. At the time, I thought the Rangers were making a weird decision when they moved him back to starting in '10, but it worked out really well.

Although he hasn't been quite as good as he was with Texas (his ERA+ during his time with the Angels is 103), he's been a solid citizen in the rotation even as the rest of the team struggles, eating innings and keeping his team in games. His 3.28 FIP this season is right in line with what he did in '10 and '11; his skills have not deteriorated.

Overall, in 1061 major league innings, Wilson has a 3.63 ERA, 68-51 record, 953/445 K/BB ratio, 118 ERA+, and a career WAR of 17.5. He's generated 14.6 WAR since moving into the rotation.

As a prospect, Wilson had an erratic track record punctuated by a serious injury. He didn't throw hard in the minors and his secondary stuff was inconsistent, though it showed improvement in the runup to Tommy John. He throws harder now than he did 10 years ago, topping out at 93-94 and averaging around 91. He was in the 87-91 range as a prospect. The boost in velocity, combined with a full arsenal of secondary pitches, has made Wilson a big success story.