A former 38th-round draft pick lost briefly as a Rule V selection, right-hander Randy Wells never enjoyed elite prospect status. Yet, the 1,143rd player taken in the 2002 draft managed a 3 WAR season as a rookie starter with the Chicago Cubs in 2009. Wells was about as valuable as Randy Wolf and Roy Oswalt. Where did this guy come from, and what should we expect going forward?
The 6-3, 230 pound Wells played his college ball at Southwestern Illinois Community College. He was a catcher back then, and was drafted as a backstop. Wells’ career behind the dish was short-lived, however, as he “hit” to the tune of a .399 OPS in limited playing time between 2002 and 2003. Despite never pitching in high school or in college, Wells tried his hand at throwing heat, instead of whiffing at it.
He transitioned to the mound full-time in 2004, tossing 107.2 IP (15 starts, 21 ‘pen appearances) in the Low-A Midwest League. Wells’ 4.43 ERA looked lukewarm, but he did post rates of 10.1 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9. In 2005, he pitched mostly in the High-A Florida State League, with a late-season cameo in the AA Southern League. In 108 combined innings (10 starts, 37 relief stints), Wells whiffed 9.2 hitters per nine frames, with few free passes to boot (2.4 BB/9). His ERA dipped to 2.83, and his FIP was 2.89.
Perhaps encouraged by Wells’ smooth transition, the Cubs made him a full-time starting pitcher in 2006. Wells began the season back in AA, shredding hitters for 7.8 K/9, 1.88 BB/9 and a 2.65 FIP in 62.1 innings. While his ERA was nearly five after a promotion to AAA Iowa, Wells still held his own with 7.7 K/9, 3 BB/9 and a 3.85 FIP in 69 innings pitched. A .371 BABIP was to blame for the bloated ERA.
Wells still wasn’t considered much of a prospect, failing to crack Baseball America’s top 30 Cubs prospects at any point. Returning to Iowa in 2007, he was pushed back to the bullpen for the most part (just nine starts in 39 games). He compiled a mediocre 4.60 ERA, though his peripherals (9.57 K/9, 3.73 BB/9, 4.00 FIP) were a little more encouraging.
Following that tepid ’07 season, the Cubs chose to keep Wells off the club’s 40-man roster, leaving him unprotected in the upcoming Rule V draft. Chicago liked Wells’ high-80’s to low-90’s sinker, but felt his slider and changeup lagged behind. The Toronto Blue Jays snatched him with the 11th pick, hoping to get some cheap middle-inning relief. While Wells did break camp with the Jays to begin 2008, he made just one appearance before being offered back to the Cubs in mid-April.
While he tossed a few late-season innings in the big leagues, Wells spent another summer in the Pacific Coast League. Pitching mostly in the rotation this time (19 starts in 27 games), Wells had a 4.01 FIP in 118.2 IP. He struck out 7.74 per nine, while displaying better control with 2.58 BB/9.
In 2009, Wells looked destined to spend yet another year in the cornfields. He had a 21/7 K/BB ratio and a 2.89 FIP in his first five starts with the I-Cubs, but he got the big league call in early May when Carlos Zambrano (pulled hamstring) went on the DL after doing his best Ichiro impression down the first base line.
Wells never relinquished his rotation spot, posting a 3.05 ERA in 165.1 innings with the Cubs and finishing 6th in Rookie of the Year voting. What’s in store for Wells in 2010? Is he a good fantasy option?
While Wells was a decent starter in 2009, that very low ERA might lead to some unrealistic expectations heading into next season. He struck out 5.66 batters per nine innings, while issuing 2.5 BB/9. Those aren’t bad rates, and when coupled with slight groundball tendencies (47.9 GB%), Wells was an above-average starter.
However, both his rate of stranding runners and home runs allowed per fly ball suggest that his 2010 ERA is more likely to be in the low-fours. Wells had a 76 left on base percentage, well above the 70-72% average for starters. Perhaps he pitches better from the stretch than most, but that number will probably fall somewhat next year. Also, his HR/FB% was rather low, at eight percent (10-12% average). Wells’ Expected Fielding Independent ERA (xFIP) was 4.24. Useful, but not ace-worthy by any means.
Wells went after batters with four offerings: An 89-90 MPH four-seam fastball, a slightly slower two-seamer with more tailing and sinking action, a low-to-mid-80’s slider and a low-80’s changeup.
Keep in mind that Wells’ pitch run values are look better than they should, due to the aforementioned high strand rate and low HR/FB rate. But his four-seamer and two-seam fastballs checked in at +0.04 runs per 100 tosses, with his slider gobbling up batters with +2.88 runs/100. His changeup wasn’t anything special (-0.67). Wells’ breaking pitch helped him generate a 27.8 outside-swing percentage (25% MLB average). He also did a nice job of getting ahead in the count, with a 61.4 first-pitch strike percentage (58% MLB average).
Attacking righty hitters with that slider, Wells held same-handed batters to a 60 sOPS+ (40 percent better than the league average). Lefties got a bunch of changeups, though, and hit him for a 108 sOPS+ (eight percent worse than the league average).
Wells is worth drafting in NL-only leagues and perhaps in deep mixed leagues, but expecting a repeat of his 2009 season would be quixotic. The 27 year-old is no top-of-the-line arm, but he looks like a solid mid-rotation option. Not bad for a guy who didn’t toss a pitch in high school or college.