Jack Wilson, the second-worst offensive player in baseball? Could this be right? Well, sort of. I checked: Wilson currently has the second-lowest OPS of all qualified batters in baseball, ahead of only Cesar Izturis (Guzman doesn't qualify, apparently). As good as Wilson's defense has probably been, he has given the Pirates far less than they bargained for.
Let's suppose for a second that Wilson deserves a free pass for the month of April, when he was recovering from an appendectomy and he posted a .393 OPS. He had his best month of the season in May, so it seems safe to assume he had recovered by then. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, which don't include sacrifice flies (which would lower his OPS) or stats from today's game, Wilson has posted a .678 OPS since the end of April. That number is higher than Wilson's career OPS of .667. There are thirty shortstops in the big leagues who have posted a .678 OPS or higher in 50 or more at bats this year. They include such non-name brand infielders as Hector Luna, John MacDonald, Jason Bartlett, Neifi Perez, Ronny Cedeno, Mark DeRosa and Michael Morse.
Wilson has a reputation as a great fielder, but many shortstops are great fielders - that's why they're shortstops. Wilson is ranked first among major league shortstops in zone rating and second in range factor. But Mitchel Lichtman's UZR statistic, which is something like zone rating except in that it measures the type of ball hit (grounder, line drive, and so on), ranks Wilson as just average this year. Wilson obviously looks like a great fielder; but then again, most shortstops do. Wilson is probably a very good fielder, even for a shortstop, but it's hard to make up for the damage he has done and continues to do with the bat. The fact that his OPS since April is close to his career OPS gives me no hope that the damage will let up soon, either.
The Pirates' management recently said that the only hitters guaranteed a job next year are Jason Bay, Jose Castillo and Wilson. But why should the second-worst offensive starter in baseball in August be guaranteed a job the following April? Castillo came through the minors as a shortstop, so the Pirates could acquire a player at either middle infield position who could out-hit Wilson against certain righties. Josh Fogg and especially Dave Williams and Oliver Perez have been flyball pitchers this year, which means that the middle infielders aren't as important when they pitch. Williams and Perez are likely to be back in the rotation next year.
The Pirates won't acquire a bona-fide, well-rounded shortstop without spending a pile of money, and there's no need to completely give up on Wilson; he certainly has his uses. But the evidence suggests that he is not a well-rounded player. He just can't hit. Worrying about his contract and dreaming that the first half of 2004 will come back just make the problem worse. He has done little to deserve a guaranteed starting job seven months from now, and yet that is what the Pirates have already given him.
The Pirates should look for a cheap middle infielder with offensive potential during the offseason - or look at various in-house options - and try to find ways to maximize Wilson's strengths (fielding) while minimizing his weaknesses (hitting). Boston's use of Mark Bellhorn and Pokey Reese at second base last year is a good model for what the Pirates should consider here. At this point, Wilson's strengths and weaknesses are so clear that his performance practically begs for a time-share situation. If the Pirates can't find the right time-share partner, fine - give Wilson another year. But the Pirates are either satisfied wtih his performance this year, or too hopeful about what it means. They shouldn't be either of these things. The Pirates need to improve at shortstop, regardless of Wilson's contract.