Over the last three or four years, it’s become pretty clear the Yankees have one of the better pro scouting departments in the game. Everyone offseason they acquire some retreads and somehow turn them into useful players, like Bartolo Colon or Eric Chavez or Marcus Thames. They seem to revive guys from the baseball graveyard, and this year they might have done their greatest work, turning Vernon Wells back into a legitimate big league player.
Wells, 34, was hilariously bad with the Angels the last two years. You know that. He hit .222/.258/.409 (82 wRC+) in 791 plate appearances from 2011-2012, his only saving grace the 33 homers he swatted from the right side. Wells was effectively done as a MLB caliber hitter, someone who kept his job only because of the tens of millions of dollars still owed to him. Fantasy owners didn’t even have to think twice about dropping him from their roster or consider him on draft day.
Now with the Yankees and 18 games into the very young season, Wells has come out and produced a .299/.373/.582 (163 wRC+) batting line with five homers and a career-high 10.7% walk rate in 75 plate appearances. Pitchers are throwing him fewer pitches in the zone than ever before (43.6%), explaining the walk rate, and his BABIP isn’t outrageous (.294 compared to .280 career). Odds are in favor of his 19.2% HR/FB rate coming back to a Earth a bit (12.1%), but he is playing half his games in Yankee Stadium now. He’s mashed in the early going.
As Andy McCullough of The Star-Ledger detailed earlier this month, Wells did make some changes to his approach this year. It started with watching old tape during Spring Training with the Angels and continued in New York, where hitting coach Kevin Long suggested he stand closer to the plate and pull his hands tighter to his body. Long story short, he told McCullough he stopped trying to hit a home run every time at the plate and instead focused on simply driving the ball. That in and of itself doesn’t mean much of anything — focusing on driving the ball and being physically able to do it are different things entirely — but it’s always nice to know some tangible adjustments were made when talking about unexpected production.
The updated versions of ZiPS (116 wRC+) and Steamer (121 wRC+) project Wells to be an above-average hitter this year, but it’s the shape of that production that matters to fantasy ownership. The AVG numbers are merely okay (.261 and .271, respectively) and not great, ditto the OBP (.318 and .332). Both systems think he can still slug 30 dingers in 600 plate appearances, and so far the Yankees sure seem dedicated to playing him everyday. When Curtis Granderson returns from his fractured forearm — a return that is not imminent, he hit off a tee for the first time yesterday — it could be Ichiro Suzuki who finds himself on the bench. He looks like one of the team’s veteran retread misses so far.
I think we’ve reached a weird point of the season where Wells has done enough to at least pique of the interest of fantasy owners, but maybe not enough to completely convince people the guy we saw with the Angels is gone. He’s still sitting out there on the waiver wire and free agency in a lot of leagues, and he’s someone you could grab for $1-3 in ottoneu leagues. There’s still this sense that Wells will crater as the year progresses and return to being unrosterable, but the acquisition cost is relatively low at the moment. It’s a good time to risk a roster spot and a small part of the budget for a guy who could wind up producing with a solid OF2 or high-end OF3 this summer.
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