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Pirates Give Extension to Jack Wilson

Today, the Pirates will announce what will likely be a three-year, $20 million extension for Jack Wilson.

I don't like this at all. Wilson is already 28 and was already under the Pirates' control through 2007. So this contract locks him up for 2008 and 2009, which will be his age 30 and age 31 seasons.

Here are Wilson's list of comparable players, according to Baseball Reference. The top two are Rafael Ramirez and Royce Clayton, which tells you most of what you need to know. Of all the ten players on the list, only Rick Burleson had one decent season on offense in age 30 or 31.

Wilson had a .299 OBP last year. When's the last time you can think of a player with a .299 OBP getting a $20 million contract? The only contract I can think of offhand that's comparable is the ridiculous 4-year, $32 million contract the Angels gave Orlando Cabrera last year after he finished 2004 with a .306 OBP. But even that wasn't all that similar, since Cabrera was a free agent at the time and the Bucs already control Wilson's rights in 2007.

Wilson's defense is very good, of course. But the Pirates' biggest problems over the past five years have been getting runners on base and scoring runs, and Wilson has probably been the single greatest cause of those problems. And by 2008 and 2009, he may well have lost a step and his defense might not be nearly as good (though I'm sure his reputation will be intact).

At the very least, this contract could have waited. This is, in my opinion, a bad signing, probably done more for PR reasons than for baseball reasons.

UPDATE: Upon reflection, there are at least a couple reasons not to hate this deal, so I'll point them out, in the interest of fairness. Wilson wasn't a terrible hitter in '05 if you're willing to write off his appendectomy-influenced April stats. And the Pirates don't have anyone else except Freddy Sanchez and Jose Castillo to man the middle infield positions in the forseeable future - the prospects they have there, like Craig Stansberry and Javier Guzman, are mediocre. Also, there is the potential for this to work out well if Wilson can split the difference between his 2004 and non-April 2005 stats. $20 million for three years is really not too much to pay a shortstop with fantastic defense if he hits fairly well.

The real problem is that I can't see how anyone could be convinced that Wilson is going to be hitting well in 2008 and 2009. He has been a marginal offensive player in every year of his career except one, and he's already in his late 20s.

The most important point here is that the Pirates already controlled Wilson's 2006 and 2007 seasons, and after those, he'll be in his 30s. As a group, marginal offensive players don't tend to get better as they enter their 30s. In fact, my guess would be that many of them play their way out of the league in their early 30s. That's what many players on Wilson's comparables list did.

The top player on Wilson's comparables list, Rafael Ramirez, never put up an OBP above .300 after 30. The second player, Royce Clayton, also a shortstop who at one time had a very good glove, has been a journeyman player since he turned 30. No one has ever had to pay more than $4.5 million per year for his services. #3 Rick Burleson never had more than 271 at bats in a year after 30. #4 Gene Alley played less and less after age 29 and was out of baseball at 33. #6 Ivan DeJesus had two bad seasons at ages 30 and 31, and never played much after that. #9 Chico Carrasquel was dreadful in 1959 at age 31 and never played after that. #10 Kurt Stillwell got 255 at bats in the big leagues after age 27.

There is no reason to think that Wilson is a historically unique player. With the usual caveats about comparing players across eras, these players are all very statistically similar to Wilson. All were shortstops, most of whom fielded their position very well. Many of them had problems with the strike zone, like Wilson does. Of all the players on his list, only three - Clayton, Shawon Dunston and Dick Groat - had much of a career after age 30, and only Groat was anything more than a marginal player.

However much we like watching Wilson play defense, none of this should be very surprising. If you're a marginal hitter in your prime and then your skills start to disappear, you're not going to stick around very long as a starter. At some point, it really doesn't matter how good your defense is, or was. Middle infielders' hitting skills tend to disappear at a younger age than most players. This contract gambles that he's going to be a good player nearly four years from now. That seems to me like a very bad gamble.