With Lee gone, Wilson leading man for Texas
At the baseball Winter Meetings in Anaheim, Calif., six years ago, a 24-year-old left-handed pitcher showed up with the hope that he might be noticed and then drafted by a Major League team.
"I just decided to show up and see if someone might recognize me and perhaps take a chance and Draft me," recalled the man who now is the No. 1 starter on the Texas Rangers -- C.J. Wilson.
Wilson had been left off the Rangers' 40-man roster in the winter of 2004 and thus was available in the Rule 5 Draft.
A Major League team could have selected the young left-hander with three promising years of professional baseball under his belt for a grand total of $50,000.
Wilson, who had suffered an arm injury in 2003 and underwent Tommy John surgery in August of that year, went undrafted and now finds himself as the ace of the American League champion Rangers.
He steps into the lead role on the Rangers' pitching staff with the departure of Cliff Lee to the Philadelphia Phillies for a five-year contract of $120 million.
The Rangers can thank their lucky stars that no team decided to take a chance on Wilson six years ago, but they now are faced with the significant issue of signing their star pitcher to a long-term contract or having him become eligible for free agency after next season.
The problem the Rangers face is that Wilson was every bit the pitcher for them that Lee was last season and is nearly two years younger.
Presented with the opportunity to move from the bullpen to the Rangers' rotation last year, Wilson responded with a 15-8 record and a 3.35 ERA. He recorded 170 strikeouts in 204 innings with 93 walks.
Lee, pitching for Seattle and the Rangers, posted a mark of 12-9 with a 3.18 ERA. He compiled 185 strikeouts with a remarkably low 18 walks that reflected his precise control.
Lee's new contract will be helpful to Wilson when it comes time for him to negotiate a deal, although you can be sure the Rangers would put up a strong case that the experience and accomplishments of the two pitchers are miles apart.
Should Wilson become a free agent after the 2011 season, he will find himself, assuming good health, a major attraction with a very small group of top pitchers available even at this stage.
One thing that is certain is that Wilson benefited from the presence of Lee in a Rangers uniform last season once Lee was traded from Seattle.
"Cliff and I are different in many ways as pitchers and as people, but I really gained a lot from him during his time with the Rangers," said Wilson on the phone in the Bahamas on Wednesday.
"The main thing I gained from Cliff was just in-game observations when we were together," said Wilson.
"Our approach to the game is different, in both how we pitch and how we prepare," added Wilson. "Cliff is a guy who likes to keep it as simple as possible, and he does that by controlling his fastball and with his command. He doesn't even watch much video of his pitching. He knows what he wants to do and he goes out to the mound to do it.
"I'm a guy who likes to watch everything available, and I'll study the analytical part of my performance as much as humanly possible."
Wilson said there is one specific facet of his approach he shares with Lee:
"Cliff is driven to be as good as he can be and he is a great competitor. My main goal for next year, just as it has been, is to be as good as I can be.
"I want to be looked upon as an elite pitcher. I've always had confidence in myself, but with the type of year I had last season, I found that more people had more confidence in me and believed in me," said Wilson.
Wilson said he wasn't surprised that Lee turned down greater offers from the Yankees and Rangers to sign with the Phillies.
"Cliff is a basic and straight-forward guy who knows who he is and doesn't try to be somebody else."
As for Wilson, his areas of interest range far and wide and seem to be ever-changing.
"I enjoy learning and being involved in a lot of areas and activities, but I know where my attention needs to be, and that's being the best pitcher that I can be," said Wilson.
If Wilson backs up his 2010 season with another successful year, the time of being available for $50,000 is going to seem like a long time ago.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as Executive Vice-President and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.