At the very least, Houston’s signing of Preston Wilson should help quiet the do-something crowd of Astros fans clamoring for a big-time move this offseason. Wilson may not be a grade-A free agent, but given the market, signing him for $4 million seems reasonable.
Moreover, General Manager Tim Purpura, previously described as “useless, ” bought the Astros a nice insurance policy by giving them the choice after the 2006 season of buying out Wilson for $500,000 or exercising a three-year option worth, with incentives, up to $9 million per season.
This gamble precisely suits the Astros, a mid-market team with a huge uncertainty in its line-up and significant existing contract commitments. Wilson’s 2006 salary is comparable to what the Cubs are paying Jacque Jones (3 years, $16 million) and the Cardinals are paying Juan Encarnacion (3 years, $15 million) on an annual basis.
If Jeff Bagwell cannot return to the line-up, the Astros can move Lance Berkman to first base and play Wilson in left field with Willy Taveras in center and Jason Lane in right. If Bagwell can play, the Astros have the option of trading Lane or Taveras. Either way, Chris Burke is likely more expendable (even if not any more marketable) now.
Better yet, manager Phil Garner would have the luxury of shuffling around Berkman, Wilson, Taveras and Lane as needed. Berkman would likely still see some time at first, since Bagwell’s 37-year-old surgically modified shoulder is unlikely to let him play every day.
Purpura was sanguine about Wilson’s capabilities as a proven run-producer. Wilson, like many other major-leaguers, has the tendency to drive in runs when he gets hits with teammates on base.
Wilson is coming off a five-year, $32-million contract that he signed in 2001 with the Marlins. Wilson’s oft-cited 2003 season, when he hit 36 home runs and led the league with 141 RBI, was aided by playing in Colorado.
In the four seasons from 1999 to 2002, Wilson hit 103 home runs and drove in 328 runs, not bad playing for the offense-deprived Marlins in a pitcher’s park. Here is a career breakdown of Wilson’s performance at Coors Field and elsewhere, per 162 games:
Place Avg OBP Slg 2B 3B HR R RBI BB SO SB CS -------------------------------------------------------------- Coors .280 .348 .527 42 2 34 103 133 56 144 14 9 Other .261 .329 .466 31 3 28 83 94 54 166 20 9
The “other” row is not inconsistent with Wilson’s .261/.329/.443 performance with the Nationals last season.
Wilson does not look to help the Astros in their biggest area of need on offense, getting on base. And if the Astros decide to trade an existing outfielder, moving Wilson to center, keeping Lane (.267/.316/.499) in right and trading Taveras (.291/.325/.341) is probably the better bet, unless Taveras shows marked improvement at the plate.
Wilson gives the Astros flexibility and insurance, at a reasonable price, and reportedly will fit in well in a tame Astros clubhouse. Given what the market offered him, Purpura appears to have made a solid if unspectacular move to upgrade the offense and, perhaps more importantly, persuade Roger Clemens to return for a third season in Houston.