The Angels entered the offseason with money to spend and designs on nabbing a primo free agent position player, like Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre, to invigorate a team that ranked 13th in the American League in wOBA and toward the middle of the pack in UZR. After Crawford inked with the Red Sox and Beltre joined the division rival Rangers, it looked as though L.A.’s most prominent winter move would be adding lefty relief pitching.
That changed Friday, as the Angels acquired Vernon Wells from the Toronto Blue Jays for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera. In picking up Wells, the Angels added name value and spent the cash that was sitting in the club’s coffers. Unfortunately, they didn’t get any better in the process. The team is now saddled with a cumbersome contract for a player who is almost assuredly going to regress next season, and who is entering the typical decline phase of a player’s career. The Jays, meanwhile, get out from under the baseball equivalent of a subprime mortgage and pick up the trade’s best player to boot.
Any discussion of Wells begins with his contract. Signed to a mega-extension prior to the 2007 season, Wells has four years and $86 million remaining on his deal. He’ll pull in $23 million in 2011, and $21 million per season from 2012-2014. He could opt out after 2011, but that’s not happening. As Dave Cameron noted, that kind of coin buys quite a lot on the free agent market.
It’s true, Wells is coming off a very good 2010 season. He batted .273/.331/.515 on the year, with a .362 wOBA. Even though he rated as a below-average center fielder, costing his club 6-7 runs more than an average defender, Wells’ bat and position made him a four win player. If Wells could replicate his 2010 season in the years to come, then this deal would be palatable from the Angels’ perspective. There’s just no reason to believe that will be the case, though.
Wells, who posted a .322 wOBA over the 2007-2009 seasons, boosted that figure by 40 points this past year due to a power spike. He established a new career high in Isolated Power (.242) and came close to matching his best HR/FB in the big leagues, as 14.6 percent of his fly balls ended up in the cheap seats. Earlier this month, Dan Szymborski released a 2011 ZiPS projection for Wells: .265/.318/.451, with a .186 ISO. While that projection is for Wells in Toronto, it gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect. That line would make Wells around a league-average hitter, with a wOBA around the high .320s.
Maybe you think that’s a bit too harsh — both Bill James and The Fans project Wells for a wOBA around .345. But even then, he’d be in for a fairly large decline at the plate.
Let’s take The Fans’ projection for Wells in 2011 as a starting point for evaluating the return on investment the Angels figure to get. That projection assumes Wells hits about as well as he has throughout his major league career, and that the 32-year-old is a merely poor defender (-6 runs) as opposed to the disaster that his 2008 (-12.9) and 2009 (-16.6) marks suggest.
The Fans have Wells putting up a 2.6 WAR season in 2011 (his value as a left fielder, should he move over in deference to Peter Bourjos, figures to be about the same when you consider the change in defensive rating and positional adjustment). Assuming a typical 0.5 WAR per year decline, as well as a $4.5-$5 million/WAR figure with five percent inflation per year, a back-of-the-napkin estimate has Wells being worth $37-$38 million through 2014.
Again, he is owed $86 million over that time frame. Shedding Rivera’s salary as well as Napoli’s (while surrendering an asset in the latter case) doesn’t come close to evening things out. Even if you think Wells will perform considerably better through his age 32-35 seasons that he did in his late twenties and early thirties, and that inflation will be more than five percent per year, it’s near impossible to envision a scenario in which he’s worth his contract. It’s like the Angels paid for a mansion on the beach and got a one-bedroom ranch house in the Rust Belt instead.
That giggling you hear from up north is Alex Anthopoulos. Not only did Toronto unload a massive financial burden in this deal, giving them much improved flexibility in the years to come, but the organization also added a quality player in Napoli.
The 29-year-old is under team control for two more seasons. He recently asked for $6.1 million in arbitration, with the Angels countering at $5.3 million. Napoli never seemed to be a Mike Scioscia favorite, and his catcher defense doesn’t rate well according to Total Zone, which includes stolen bases allowed, caught stealing, errors, pickoffs, passed balls and wild pitches, adjusted for pitcher handedness. But, with a walk rate exceeding 11 percent and excellent power, Napoli has a career .357 wOBA.
In Toronto, Napoli can split time behind the plate with J.P. Arencibia, while also getting some time at first base and at DH. He’s possibly Toronto’s best hitter (though Jose Bautista has something to say about that), and a 2-3 win player if he sees more time behind the plate. Arencibia has excellent power of his own, but there are questions about his plate approach and D.
Rivera, 32, is more of an afterthought in the trade. He has decent power and could see meaningful playing time in the outfield if the Jays decide to play Jose Bautista at third base, but Rivera’s not very patient and doesn’t stand out defensively, either. He’ll make $5.25 million in 2011.
Overall, acquiring Wells looks like a desperation move for the Angels. They missed out on Crawford and Beltre, they had money to pump into the payroll, and they wanted to show that they did something big to compete in the short stack division. Vernon Wells is no consolation prize, however — he’s a decent, aging player being paid like a superstar. L.A. might have created a headache behind the plate, too, as Jeff Mathis (career -0.8 WAR) shouldn’t be starting and Hank Conger, while intriguing offensively, has durability and defensive concerns.
For Toronto, it’s impossible not to love this trade. The Jays clear scores of cash, giving a young, pitching-rich team financial flexibility to add other pieces as they see fit. With a cheap, youthful roster, a shrewd front office and seven of the first 80 picks in next year’s amateur draft, the Jays are building the sort of organization that may be able to compete with the AL East’s titans sooner rather than later.