Prospect Rewind: Should Justin Wilson’s Future Be in the Rotation?

Justin Wilson emerged as a dominant lefty out of the bullpen this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Justin Wilson emerged as a dominant lefty out of the bullpen this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The 2013 season saw Justin Wilson emerge as a dominant left-handed reliever. Out of 135 qualified relievers, Wilson ranked 17th with his 2.08 ERA. His 3.41 FIP was closer to middle of the pack, ranking 71st. That was due to a low BABIP of .229, which might come up in the future. However, Wilson limited opponents throughout his minor league career, with BABIP numbers below .290-.300 in the upper levels of the minors. So while he probably won’t repeat the .229 number, he probably won’t regress all the way to .300, which means his FIP would be a bit higher than his future production.

In the last few weeks I’ve been running this Prospect Rewind series, looking back at prospect reports on certain players from the previous editions of the Prospect Guide. The 2014 Prospect Guide is currently available for pre-sales, and will be the fourth version we’ve produced. Wilson won’t be in that book, since he lost prospect status this year. However, here is a look at his reports from the last three years, in his journey to becoming a major league reliever.

The first report is from 2011, when Wilson was our number 12 ranked prospect.

After leading Fresno State to a National Championship in 2008, Wilson signed with the Pirates as a fifth round draft pick to start his pro career. He started off in high-A in 2009, which was an aggressive placement. Wilson struggled in the first half of the season, which could have either been due to the long layoff from pitching, or due to the aggressive placement.

Wilson finished the season strong in 2009, and carried that success over to the 2010 season. Control has always been a problem for Wilson, as his pitches have a lot of movement. He struggled with that control at times in 2010, especially towards the end of the season. Those control issues also existed during the Arizona Fall League, where Wilson walked eight in 16.1 innings. When his control is on, he is a dominant pitcher. When the control escapes him, things can get messy.

Wilson’s fastball ranges from 88-93 MPH, usually sitting in the upper half of that range. There have been reports of him touching 95 in some outings. He has a big breaking curveball and a sharp slider that he uses as a changeup. Wilson has great stuff, but his control inconsistencies hurt him. He could be a 3-5 starter or a late inning reliever in the majors, and his control issues will play a big role in his projections.

The stats were in the book, but not in the report. The control issues mentioned were a 4.5 BB/9 ratio. He had a 4.3 BB/9 ratio in high-A in 2009. Wilson had dominant strikeout numbers, with an 8.5 K/9 in 142.2 innings. He also had a .209 BAA, which was helped by a low .273 BABIP.

Wilson went to Triple-A in 2011, and spent most of the season as a starter. He ended the season in the bullpen, with a big spike in his velocity. We had him rated as the 14th best prospect in the 2012 prospect guide, with the report below.

Wilson was one of two pitchers from the 2010 Altoona rotation who made the jump to Indianapolis at the start of the 2011 season. He was viewed as a guy who could potentially reach the majors by mid-season, although the strength of the major league rotation throughout the summer provided no need for a starter. By the time there was a need for a starter, Wilson had been moved to the bullpen in AAA to work on his control issues.

Control has always been a problem for Wilson, with a walk rate that has increased every year.  His strikeouts were down in 2011 and his average was up from 2010. The Pirates moved him to the bullpen so he could work more frequently on his command issues.

A big reason for Wilson’s control issues is due to the movement on his pitches. He has a lot of late movement on his pitches, leading to his command issues. The move to the bullpen didn’t exactly help his control, but it did add a new strength to his game. Out of the bullpen Wilson featured an upper 90s fastball, topping out at 99 MPH on several occasions. That’s a huge weapon for a left hander, and when paired with his curveball it makes him a late inning option out of the bullpen.

The door isn’t closed for Wilson to make it as a starter. He might have more immediate value as a relief pitcher if he’s throwing in the upper 90s. He will return to AAA in 2012, and might be a candidate to return to the rotation to get as many innings as possible. His best bet to arrive in the majors in 2012 is in relief.

Wilson’s strikeouts dropped to a 6.8 K/9 in Triple-A in 2011. The walk rate went up to a 4.9 BB/9. His BAA went up to .249, but his BABIP was still low at .287. The move to the bullpen looked interesting due to the velocity increase, and ultimately started his path to the majors as a reliever.

He did make that jump to the bullpen at the end of the 2012 season. Wilson worked mostly as a starter in Triple-A once again that year, but was promoted to the majors at the end of the year and put up a 1.93 ERA in 4.2 innings of work. Here is the report heading into the 2013 season, where we had him ranked 14th overall once again.

Wilson’s first jump to the Triple-A level led to some struggles, and an eventual move to the bullpen to work on his control issues. The lefty finished the 2011 season in the bullpen, although the move wasn’t permanent. The Pirates moved Wilson back to the rotation to start the 2012 season, and sent him back to Triple-A.

After starting off with some poor control numbers in April, Wilson switched to more of an overhead delivery, aimed at keeping his body under control and making it easier to repeat his delivery. The new approach worked for a while, cutting down on his walks. The first start with the delivery led to a combined no-hitter, with Wilson throwing 7.1 no-hit innings with two walks and nine strikeouts. As the season progressed, the control issues started to re-appear.

Wilson has some of the best stuff in the system, but his control issues limit his upside. He throws a 92-96 MPH fastball as a starter, and has hit 99 as a reliever in the past. He also throws a curveball, slider, and changeup, with his curve being his best off-speed pitch.

The Pirates moved him back to the bullpen at the end of the 2012 season so that they could use him as an additional lefty out of the major league bullpen in September. His control problems limit his upside, but they exist as a starter and as a reliever, so there’s no benefit to moving him to the bullpen full time.

If Wilson could ever gain control, he’d be a strong number two starter. That’s a huge “if”, and almost impossible at this point. Even with the poor control, his stuff could make him a solid number four starter or a power left-handed reliever. He could get a crack at the majors during Spring Training. If he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, the best approach would be to keep him in the rotation, where he’d provide more value.

As we know, Wilson did make the majors out of Spring Training, and the results are mentioned above. However, the question going forward is whether he should remain in the bullpen or move to the rotation. Wilson is more than a two-pitch option, so a transition to the rotation wouldn’t be impossible. He also has amazing stuff. He averaged 95.3 MPH with his fastball in 2013 in relief, but as a starter he’s usually a bit lower in the 93 MPH range. That’s still a great average for a left-hander. He’s also got a lot of movement on his pitches, and has some quality breaking stuff, which will allow him to keep up the strikeouts going forward.

The walks are a big concern for Wilson, but they’ve been a concern no matter what role he’s been in. He had a 3.4 BB/9 ratio in the majors this year, which was the best of his career. That raises questions of whether this was due to him pitching out of the bullpen, or whether it was an overall improvement to his game that could carry over to the rotation.

With the control issues — which were the primary reason for Wilson being inconsistent — he’s at least a strong number four starter. That has more value to a major league team than a power lefty reliever. If his control issues have been cut down no matter what role he’s in, then he could be at least a middle of the rotation starter with his stuff.

The problem Wilson faces with the Pirates is that they have a ton of starting options. The major league rotation next year will feature Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez, and either A.J. Burnett or a free agent starter. If someone like Wandy Rodriguez can’t pitch, then Jeff Locke would be the top backup. They also have Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin as immediate replacements out of Triple-A. Stolmy Pimentel is in the same situation as Wilson, with more value as a starter, and could also step into the rotation if needed. By mid-season, the Pirates should have Jameson Taillon ready for the majors, and by the end of the season they could also have Nick Kingham, Casey Sadler, and/or Kyle McPherson as options.

As an individual player, Wilson has more value as a starting pitcher. He could be anything from a number two to a number four starter, depending on whether his control issues go down in the rotation. The problem with the Pirates’ situation is that they have so many options that they don’t need to take the risk on Wilson. If his control issues were cut down as a starter, then it would be worth it to have him in the rotation. If he still struggled with inconsistent control as a starter, then he wouldn’t be better than the other options they have. For now it might make more sense to keep Wilson as a reliever. If a situation comes up in the future where the Pirates need a starter, then it might make sense to move him back to the rotation.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • CalipariFan506

    IMO this is the Pirates toughest developmental question. It’s hard for guys to switch back. Lance Lynn has taken two years to build up enough to finish a season. Plus he’s only a 4 or 5 starter.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chrishale525 Chris Hale

      He’s a 4 or 5 starter on a team like the Cards who are loaded with great pitching. There was a time last year when Lynn was one of the best pitchers in baseball and He was dominant at times this year. He’s got #2 upside His fastball sits in the mid 90’s. When he is struggling it’s definitely not because he doesn’t have the stuff, It’s a mental issue. Lance Lynn at his best would be our #3 starter right now maybe higher ,

  • piraddict

    Nice analysis Tim! I am partial to LHSP because of the Cards and Reds relative weakness against them and the dimensions of PNC mitigate against RH hitters if you have a speedy outfield, which the Pirates do. I would love to see at least two LHSP in the five man rotation. But almost all of the young studs coming up are RHSP. You seem to think that the Pirates won’t be able to sign Liriano after 2014. Wandy will be gone after next year, maybe sooner. Locke is a ? Beyond 2014 Wilson is the Pirates only LHSP option besides Locke presently on board. So I think they should give Wilson every opportunity to prove that he can step up, if not in 2014 because Liriano and Wandy are still here, then certainly in 2015. Will he be able to do it? Who knows. But the diminished walk rate in 2013 is encouraging, even if in a relief role.

    • JollyRogerFan

      I absolutely agree. Solid LHSP pitchers with his stuff are very hard to come by. I would give him a full year to figure it out as a starter in AAA assuming he still has options. Having a good lefty in this division is a huge advantage. If he does well, he can step in when one or two of the other starters go down or be prepared to take over for Liriano and/or Wandy after 2014. Unless Oliver can figure it out (which isn’t likely), the Pirates only have quality lefties at the very bottom of their system right now.

  • Jeff

    Tim,
    Am I wrong in thinking the longer he remains a relief pitcher, the harder it will be to build him up to a starter?

  • https://www.facebook.com/marty.leap Marty

    I’d look to sell high on Wilson this offseason to help fix the 1B problem.

    • http://www.facebook.com/nicholas.a.capernicus Nick A. Capernicus

      i do not always agree with you but when i do, it is 100% true, lets try not to make a hug(hes) mistake, if the right deal comes along why not. NH is a bullpen machine. If there is one thing i trust him with is building a bullpen

      • https://www.facebook.com/marty.leap Marty

        Sell high on relievers. Always, always, always. Especially one that throws in the mid to high 90s from the left side, and could possibly start.

        • Cato the Elder

          Always sell high in relievers, especially when they could be starters?! O_o

          • Mr. Goodkat

            ^This.

            Apples to Oranges comparing Wilson to the other relievers we have traded.

            Unless you don’t consider him a starting option…

  • piraterican21

    The best comp for Wilson is another lefty reliever turn top starter, former Ranger and current Angel C.J. Wilson, the fact remain that after 5 years of pro ball Justin hasnt been able to improve his control enough to warant another chance to start. Add to that the fact that the team has so many other options soon to arrive and the best we could hope for is that he turns into our closer in a year or two.

    • JollyRogerFan

      If he didn’t have the success that he did this year improving his BB rate and/or was an older pitcher, I would agree with you. The fact that the Pirates have a lot of LH starting options in house in 2014 but may little to none in 2015 concerns me. He has shown improvement with his control in the pen so at his age I would give him another shot. If he is successful, the Pirates have a very good #2-4 starter for 4-5 years or and/or a huge trade chip. If he isn’t successful move him permanently back to the pen where he has proven success.

  • csnumber23

    I don’t understand all this sell high stuff?? The kid was a dominant lefty out of the bullpen in his 1st year. He is cheap and under control for 5 more years. He could be a dominant closer or setup guy for us. Or he could be a solid 2-4 starter for us. Yeah Neal is good finding bullpen year to year but LHP that throw 100 miles an hour don’t just grow on trees. Please don’t compare this kid to Jared Hughes as someone did above. Who would have given anything for Hughes before last year, nobody!! Why would they??

    Wilson should not go anywhere unless it was some huge offer.

    • Cato the Elder

      I totally agree. He is young, cheap and cost controlled. I’m all for selling high, but I don’t think middle relief/LOOGY/7th inning set-up guy is anywhere near the ceiling for a 26 year old lefty who throws in the upper 90s. Now, if he were to somehow back himself into a closer role next year and save 29 out of 30 chances on our way to a World Series, ok sell high, but the idea of selling high on middle relievers is backwards. Sell high on closers and promote middle relievers to become your next cheap closer.

      • buster09

        Wilson,as a starter in AA,threw consistently in the low to mid 90’s as a starter. It has been said,an re-said ,over and over again,that he didn’t get into the hi 90’s till they had him come out of the pen in Indy. Is that English easy to understand ?

        • Cato the Elder

          I get it. I assume that all relievers would lose some velocity when converting to a starter. All I’m saying is selling him as a 7th inning setup man would not be selling high on him. Not when he is cheap and has years of control.

        • Cato the Elder

          Also, I’m not sure I understand your condescension. He does throw in the upper 90s (as a reliever) and I talk about hypothetically moving him if/when he became a closer, so I wasn’t predicating his trade value on his ability to convert to a starter. he may have thrown in the low to mid 90s as a starter (with late movement and two complementary breaking balls) but that isn’t exactly chopped liver. One can be a good starter with that arsenal. Is this English easy enough for you, Buster?

          “[Wilson] has amazing stuff. He averaged 95.3 MPH with his fastball in 2013 in relief, but as a starter he’s usually a bit lower in the 93 MPH range. That’s still a great average for a left-hander.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrishale525 Chris Hale

    Great stuff Tim. Justin Wilson should certainly be tried as a starter. Wilson has far higher upside than Jeff Locke with the same command issue’s . The difference being even when Locke had his best he had to be near perfect. Wislon has the stuff to get away with mistakes Locke can’t. It would be a waste to not find out what he can do. Same thing with Pimentel. He has #2 upside as well,and we need to find out what we have. Heck it’s worth the try, Worst case scenario we have our 8th and 9th inning relievers of the future. I could see a I’d love to see Wilson make the rotation first because we really have no lefties starters anywhere close to the majors It would be great to have a power lefty to split up 4 power right handers Cole,Tallion,Glasnow,Heredia or Kingham. I could also invision Morris,Wilson,Pimentel 7,8,9 innings :)

    • csnumber23

      Well said, I agree completely!!

    • emjayinTN

      CH: Like the context because it is looking beyond 2013/2014. We need to start to use some of the younger pitchers rather than getting locked into a mindset that they need more experience. Justin Wilson in his Rookie year in 2013 threw 74 innings which is 12 more than Wandy, and only 42 less than Charlie Morton. Jeff Locke, in his Rookie year in 2013 threw 166 innings (30 Starts) while posting a record of 10 – 7, with an ERA of 3.52. Brandon Cumpton, in his pre-rookie year of 2013 started 5 games for the Pirates pitching 31 innings with a record of 2 – 1, 2.05 ERA, 22K/5W, and an average against of only .226 and he is a ground ball machine. Last is Stolmy Pimental who went 6 – 9, 3.35 ERA in AA/AAA in 2013 in 27 Starts, 169 IP and his numbers were much better at AAA. He came up and pitched in one game for the Pirates and did well. Big velocity and another ground ball pitcher. Jameson Taillon is very close to joining Gerrit Cole in 2014, and many other very strong prospect pitchers are moving up closer to their entry into the majors. That is why I would hope to sign Burnett for 2014 at least, and use the others – Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, and Wandy Rodriguez as trade bait to address talent shortages in other areas. All 3 will be Free Agents after 2014, and the money is going to be spent on long term contracts for Starling Marte, Neil Walker, hopefully an extension to ‘Cutch, and an early run at signing Pedro Alvarez before he gets locked into thinking we do not want to try to keep him long term. In 2014 Locke will be 26, Wilson 26, Cumpton 25, and Pimental 24, and all will be making league minimum.

  • Hank

    Of course you give Justin Wilson a shot at the rotation this year! Left handed power starters are as valuable as gold, so you don’t leave him in the pen as your 3rd or 4th reliever. You are just killing his value by leaving him in the pen! Plus, he has the stuff, he has been successful as a starter at every level, and your left handed options are limited down the road. Leaving a guy in the pen without giving him a shot who might be a #3 starter would be just plain stupid. I am also tired of the control talk, as Locke made the All Star after a great half with control numbers much worse than Wilson ever had as a starter. His control is good enough right now to be successful, and he is only going to get better if giving the chance to start.

  • Hank

    I would ask the opposite question……….why shouldn’t Justin Wilson be given a shot at a spot in the rotation this Spring? Let me know if anyone has a good reason why a possible power lefty with 2 or 3 stuff shouldn’t get at least a chance???

  • JimBibbySweat

    Why did Justin Wilson only throw 6.2 of his 73.2 innings in the month of September?

  • jon6er

    What I find amusing is that when pitching as a reliever he pitched like a starter anyway.