Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Young Guns - Justin Wilson

Justin Wilson, 25, was born in Anaheim and played his prep ball at Buchanan High School in Clovis, California, where he was a heavily scouted pitcher/first baseman. The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Wilson in 37th round (1126th overall) of the 2005 draft after he finished playing for the Bears, but instead he opted to accept a Fresno State scholarship.

After his frosh year, when he pitched 25 innings and saw time as a bench hitter, he moved to the mound full-time as a sophomore in 2007, and went 8-5 with a 3.19 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 101-2/3 IP. Wilson led the Western Athletic Conference in ERA and was named to the All-Conference team.

As a junior, he was 8-5/4.34. The Bulldogs were on a roll that year, and made a run at the national championship with Wilson picking up some late year and playoff slack when ace Tanner Scheppers went down with a bum shoulder.

In the third and deciding game of the 2008 College World Series, Wilson struck out nine, walked one and held Georgia to five hits in eight shutout innings to set up a 6-1 victory on three days rest. He was selected to the All-Tournament Team, leading all CWS pitchers in strikeouts (20) and innings pitched (20-1/3) and went 2-0 with a 2.21 ERA in three starts in Omaha.

The Pirates chose Wilson in the fifth round (144th overall) of the 2008 draft, maybe a bit of an overdraft as Baseball America considered him to be a 6th-to-10th round pick and didn't include him among their Top 200 draftable players. (The Bucs also selected his more highly touted teammate, the injured RHP Schleppers, in the second round but couldn't sign him).

Wilson played chicken with the Pirate negotiators pretty much to the wire, but signed a couple of days before the deadline for $195,000, just about at slot value. With the late date and the innings he had worked in college, the Bucs decided to hold him out of competition that season. Without tossing a pro pitch, he was ranked the Pirates #29 prospect after the season by Baseball America.

In 2009, he was assigned to High A Lynchburg to begin his pro career, aggressively bypassing West Virginia. Wilson's ERA soared into the mid-sixes after a few weeks of play when he couldn't find the dish. But he settled in well during the last two months and playoffs, finishing 6-8/4.50 with very so-so peripherals.

The Buc FO continued to move him along a fast track, sending him to Altoona the following season. Wilson adjusted well, going 11-8/3.09 for the Curve with 134 whiffs in 142-2/3 innings. But he also walked 71, matching the prior year's line of a free pass every other inning. It cost Wilson some games as he was plagued not only by the walks, but also by high pitch counts that shortened even effective outings. Still, like Mae West, when he was good, he was very good, and he was selected as the Eastern League's Playoff MVP while BA ranked Wilson as the Pirates #15 prospect going into 2011.

He was promoted to Indianapolis in 2011, and Wilson started off en fuego, but the more experienced AAA hitters waited him out. He ended the year 1-8 with three saves and a 4.13 ERA; he had been so frustrating as a starter that the Pirates bumped him to the pen in August. The good news was that as a short man, his heater touched 99; the bad news was that he still wasn't throwing strikes. The Pirates added him to their 40 man roster after the season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, even though BA dropped him a couple of notches to the #17 prospect.

Wilson returned to Indy in 2012 and on some days was literally untouchable; he tossed two no-hitters for the Tribe. On April 29th against the Durham Bulls, Wilson pitched the first 7-1/3 innings of a combined no-hitter, closed out by Jose Diaz and Doug Slaten. Then on August 9th, the lefty tossed his second no-hitter, a rain-shortened, eight inning no-no against the Charlotte Knights.

Still, in early August, the Bucs talked about putting him in the bullpen to get him ready for a LOOGY (lefties hit .129 off him at Indy in 2012) or set-up role in Pittsburgh, but it was just talk. He started the next three games, but still got his call-up on August 20th, one day after the Pirates won a 19 inning arm-killer against the St. Louis Cardinals

Wilson made his major league debut the same day against the Padres, relieving Kyle McPherson, who had taken his own MLB bow a couple of innings earlier. Wilson struck out the side, alternating whiffs with a pair of singles. He and K-Mac were shipped back to Indy the next day as the Bucs reinstated Chad Qualls and called up Daniel McCutchen.

Then the Tribe put him in the pen, and his next four outings were as a reliever, including back-to-back appearances at the end of the month, his first ever consecutive day outings in the pro ranks.Wilson gave up a run on three hits in 4-1/3 innings of relief work, with a walk and eight K. He was called back to Pittsburgh on September 1st, finishing 9-6/3.78 at Indy, tossing 135-2/3 frames (25 of his 29 appearances were starts) with 138 K and 66 walks. His International League opponents hit just .189 off him (.129/LH, .214/RH).

He throws a fastball that averaged 94 in Pittsburgh and touched 96. But its strength is also its Achilles Heel - it moves so much that he has had career-long problems spotting it. He also tossed a slider, showing batters the usual power pitcher combo. The lefty works both sides of the plate. Wilson did have a 27% K rate for the Pirates, but also an 11% walk rate, 53% line drive rate and 13 of the 26 batters he worked against got aboard. He didn't exactly present a compelling case for himself in the few innings he threw, with a shiny 1.93 ERA but a more telling 2.786 WHIP in 4-2/3 frames.

The Pirates FO dangled him during the deadline as a closer-in-the making. After all, Hanny averaged 5+ walks per nine this season and still saved 36 games, as did John Axford, who iced 35 wins. Other wild child finishers like Tyler Clippard, Jose Valverde and Carlos Marmol aren't exactly considered among the elite, but the trio did save 87 games among them, so control isn't the end-all factor in the ninth inning.

But we think that's a back-burner option for Wilson. Even the brass emphasized that the late-year move to the pen was just to slot him into the Pirates immediate 2012 needs. He still has a couple of options left, and he's flashed some real ability as a starter, with the stuff to become a two or three rotation guy if he can harness his command. That's the big if, and Pittsburgh will likely start him out at Indy again in 2013 as part of the rotation to see if Wilson can find the light switch.

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