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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.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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