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January 24, 2011

Transaction of the Day

The Vernon Wells Trade

by Christina Kahrl


American League

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Traded C/1B-R Mike Napoli and OF-R Juan Rivera to the Blue Jays for OF-R Vernon Wells. [1/21]

If Hollywood is where good ideas go to die, there is something sort of ironic to see the L'Anaheim's hometown nine consummate an expensive mistake of this magnitude in time for the same season that will see the theatrical release of a certain years-overdue film of now-dubious educational value. But if mistakes are a recurring theme, then perhaps it's appropriate that Tony Reagins has managed to fall into his predecessor's exact footsteps when it comes to making major-money mistakes with veteran outfielders. Reagins' repeating Bill Stoneman's massive mistake with Little Sarge may well be the self-capping gesture of a now worse-than-wasted winter for the Angels.

Vernon Wells might be the perfect illustration of the Angels' handicaps in player valuation and active participation in the free market. They wouldn't "overpay" to guarantee themselves signing Adrian Beltre or Carl Crawford. Instead, they wound up paying a very similar price tag over the next four years--one that had to be offset by shedding Napoli and Rivera, which a free-agent signing would not have done--to wind up with 80 percent of the ballplayer. It's a misunderstanding of both the value of talent and the value of money.

By acquiring Wells, the Angels will "only" be paying something like twice what they'd have had to pay Gary Matthews Jr. this year. That's sort of amusing, since they'll only just be paying off the last $11 million to Little Sarge. By dealing Rivera and Napoli, they're buying back the balance of the difference between Matthews' paycheck and Wells'; as long as they're already eating one mistake, why not afford another? Except that there are those three subsequent Wells seasons to afford, at $21.6 million per. Since no money was coming back from Toronto, the Angels have acquired four seasons of Wells for two arb-eligible Napoli campaigns, plus Rivera's last year before free agency. So the trade is four player seasons for three, where the combined expense of the three won't add up to the cost of one Vernon Wells season.

So, it's expensive, but Wells is coming off his third season where he produced something around 80 extra-base hits. His .291 TAv and 4.2 WARP made him among the most productive center fielders in baseball last season. Which sounds awesome, so he's totally worth it, right? To put his year into perspective, among people who spent at least part of the 2010 season in center field, Wells' WARP tally--his best since 2006 (5.5)--ranked behind those of Josh Hamilton, Carlos Gonzalez, Brett Gardner, Andres Torres, Angel Pagan, Andrew McCutchen, B.J. Upton, and Drew Stubbs. Which doesn't make him sub-awesome, but it does ratchet down any interpretation of his 2010 comeback campaign well below your average Carlos Beltran campaign back in the day.

But surely the risk of getting worse isn't that huge, is it? In the context of a decidedly uneven career, 2010 was one of the years that keeps Wells around average as a run-producer for a center fielder. Wells' career .272 True Average is exactly the same as last year's all-center fielder rate. In nine years as a regular, he has been above that four times, below it five, and in the last five seasons, rarely near the mid-point, instead bouncing from extremes. So, say you're an optimist, and figure he'll lean toward the highs. Fine, but without getting into scaring yourself over Wells' weak splits as far as his batsmanship in the Big A, after posting a career-best HR/FB rate in the power-friendly Rogers Centre (which has a BIS right-hander HR park factor of 116 from 2008-10), is it reasonable to expect more of the same in the more neutral Big A (102 over the same span)?

Well, at least he has been fairly durable, right? No, as a matter of fact, he hasn't been durable. He had repeated injury issues in both 2008 and 2009: In 2008 he lost time to hamstring and wrist issues, and had continuing problems with both in 2009 (the hammy in spring training, the hand and wrist during the year). And in 2007, there was that shoulder issue he had to have operated on after the year, and reportedly hampered his hitting all season. So that adds up to quite the tally of handicapped performance while playing, as well as a couple of DL stints and injuries that, if they hadn't been repaired at season's end, would have involved DL time.

The injuries are also worth noting in terms of evaluating his equally uneven defensive performance of late. Turning to Colin Wyers' new FRAA (or nFRAA, or perhaps DMTBNL, for Defensive Metric TBNL):

2008 -3.6 14.9 -2.9 12.3
2009 -15.8 18.8 -13.0 15.4
2010 10.5 18.4 8.4 14.8

By way of quick explanation, PAA is Plays Above Average, RAA is Runs Above Average, and MOE is Margin of Error. In short, what Colin's new metric tells us is the range of possibility for interpreting a player's performance in the field. While this might make it seem as if Wells has zig-zagged from terrible to good, not unlike his hitting track record, keep in mind that these encompass his two worst injury-afflicted seasons.

In the context of what looks like his reliably unreliable offensive and defensive performances, it is critical to note that 2010 was his first fairly healthy season since 2006, which was none-too-coincidentally his last really good season. It's upon those that fact that rests the argument that, if healthy, he's a good regular in center. But, as a player now in his 30s with a history for recurring hamstring issues, does it really make sense to bet on his continued good health? Hell no.

Perhaps it makes no less sense than what the Angels seemingly plan to do with Wells: move him to the corner opened up by dealing Rivera and by moving Bobby Abreu to their most-regular DH slot, leaving Peter Bourjos in place in center. That has already generated ejaculations of praise for how good their defense in the outfield will be, which is nice, if a little messy to try and prove, but it's easy to assert, however stretched the data to try and support it might be. Using nFRAA, Rivera and Abreu sort of canceled one another out, while Bourjos' brief bit of work graded out very strongly (+8.4 RAA), and Hunter was a modest improvement on Rivera in right. It might be a very good defensive outfield, yes.

Unfortunately, moving Wells comes at the expense of employing two bats that are offensively below-average for the corners: Wells' .272 career TAv only betters Torii Hunter's career .270 by the narrowest margin, and both are well below the standard for either corner. Add in that Abreu's bat has graded around average for DHs (.288) in the last four years, and you've potentially got a lot of offensive mediocrity on tap from the team's key boppers. If you want to pretend that we can know absolutely that Wells will be healthy this year and the next three, and that this will generate TAv marks in the .280s or .290s, he may even be a good bat in a corner. May isn't exactly the answer you want for eight figures.

Horrifically, by dealing Napoli, the overall offensive issue only gets worse when you move beyond what Wells might do, and get into what adding him costs beyond the money. Ditching Napoli is to some extent a matter of taste; there was never a lot of love from Mike Scioscia for Napoli's skills as a receiver, and in fairness to the Angels, he was also likely to see his offensive production dip in the next two years he was under club control, after already seeing a drop-off last year from his 2008-09 peak (during his age-26 and age-27 seasons, fancy that). It would be easy to claim that the Angels were dealing from a "position of strength." It would also be thoroughly stupid to say so. Jeff Mathis remains the player he was last year, or two years ago, or ever: a bad-bat backstop who wouldn't be allowed to play every day almost anywhere else, and an organizational fetish, even at a time when good catching help might be hard to find.

How bad is Mathis? In terms of WARP over the last four years combined, Mathis' feeble total of 1.5 ranks behind oft-castigated catchers like Dioner Navarro (7.0), Jose Molina (6.8), and Jason Kendall (1.9). The Astros' failure-to-launch catching prospect, the dreaded (or just dreadful) J.R. Towles has lost his job over this kind of production, with a career True Average of .216; Mathis (.208) is in danger of being handed relative security, yet for less cause as he comes up on his 28th birthday. To bandy about an alternative like Bobby Wilson is similarly a case of mistaking familiarity with the tools of ignorance for value--or what boils down to an ignorance of value, almost as egregious with the Angels' annual exercise in overrating Mathis.

The only way this aspect of things looks good is if they have the good sense to employ Hank Conger in a job-sharing arrangement behind the plate. Giving Conger 70-90 starts in 2011, just as they had been sharing the receiving chores between Mathis and Napoli in the last four seasons, could work. There's an obvious platoon possibility if the switch-hitting Conger's performance against right-handers continues: last year, he hit .344/.409/.549 against them, although that was Salt Lake-aided. It would be worth forming up a loose platoon, sparing themselves too much a heaping helping of Mathis, and perhaps Conger's throwing out roughly 30 percent of opposing stolen-base attempts the last two years will get him past Scioscia's refined tastes in receivers.

Put that all together, and it's a fairly unhappy deal. While we shouldn't overrate the importance of Napoli and Rivera, or underrate the chances that Wells pays off with a season or two as good as 2006 or 2010, it's still a massive expense for a fairly weak gamble for star-level production. As a make-up move to compensate for the Angels' failure to add something more certain, it's particularly galling. However, nobody in the AL West is that strong to automatically chuck the Halos to the short stack's basement. What affording Wells does surrender is a considerable chunk of the team's financial freedom over the next four years. He will be what he has been for much of his Jays career: a nice ballplayer, good enough to help a winning ballclub, but for the expense of employing him and how much that hampers its efforts to buy real star talent.

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Acquired OF-R Juan Rivera and 1B/C-R Mike Napoli from the Angels for OF-R Vernon Wells. [1/21]

Alex Anthopolous must live by the mantra that where there's a will, there's a way, because yet again, he found the means to make another pricey legacy go away. There are few more stunning moves. And yet there was never any need to worry about the Angels sobering up and feeling regret--this had been mooted for weeks, so unless the party just never ends in SoCal, everyone involved is supposed to have consented, entirely on the up and up.

The easy bit of genius to this is getting out from under the money owed. Sure, the Jays will have to go through a spin or two with Mike Napoli in arbitration. They're still saving themselves close to $70 million over the next four years. Maybe getting Alex Rios onto the White Sox might have owed everything to the acquisitive Kenny Williams' too-quick trigger; the Sox seem to have no regrets, and the Angels may also wind up liking their expensive addition. But getting talent and not having to bundle a few bucks into the transaction is what makes this deal the even more remarkable of the two. Just as the Jays never had to eat any of the expense of employing Rios, Anthopolous managed to avoid having to pay out a lone red cent from the back end of Wells' contract.

Combined, Rivera ($5.25 million) and Napoli ($6.1 million or $5.3 million, or somewhere in between if he settles before facing the arbitration panel) still end up saving the Jays around $13 million from their 2011 budget, another $14 million or so in 2012 (depending on what Napoli gets via arbitration for his last year before free agency), and $21.6 million in both 2013 and 2014. If Anthopolous had acquired nothing beyond that buy-back, sparing his employer somewhere in the vicinity of $70 million, he would already be an easy candidate for executive of the year. That he got a pair of useful big-league bodies as well is not exactly gravy--the Angels obviously felt the need to shed salary to add an expenditure of Wells' magnitude--but it's obviously going to prove helpful.

As for the goodies received, it has been said that one man's food is another man's garbage, but rarely is the concept so richly illustrated in a baseball trade than with an example like Mike Napoli. The Angels have been banging on Napoli's work behind the plate for years, and while the Blue Jays might wind up doing so too, they don't have an established everyday catcher and they can't be absolutely sure that Adam Lind's move to first base will go well. As a result, there should be plenty of room for everyday at-bats for Napoli. If J.P. Arencibia earns a straight-up job-share with Napoli behind the plate, that's great, but if not, they can send him back to Vegas for the first month or two. Or, if Arencibia forces their hand, they ought to be able to find a taker for Jose Molina toward the end of spring training.

Regardless of who also catches for the Jays, Napoli ought to spend a little bit of time at DH, start at first base against all lefties, and catch about 60 games, making him a valuable player. We'll see if his rate stats keep dropping, or if that was a function of over-exposure the last couple of years, but the Rogers Centre is generous to right-handed power. If Napoli is cut back to around 400 PAs, it wouldn't surprise me if he arrests his slide in performance metrics.

There's less cause to be excited about what this means for the outfield, where the Jays are obviously taking a hit, just not quite as major as it might seem at first blush. Rajai Davis slots in at center, where his bat is more position-appropriate than either corner. Rivera ought to step into the lineup in whatever corner Travis Snider isn't in, but already 32 years old, he has withered into an occasionally healthy placeholder. Although the park should help him rally in time for his walk year before joining next winter's free-agent field, the last season when he produced better-than-average numbers for a corner outfielder was 2006--his age-27 season, none too coincidentally. Getting the still-available Scott Podsednik to share time with Rivera might even make sense, although the Jays may feel they have that base covered since they count Corey Patterson among their NRI guys.

As major game-changing propositions for the Jays' immediate future, this ranks with the decision to deal Roy Halladay, except what the Jays reap here is money more than talent. All told, between making Wells and Rios go away, the Jays have gotten back at least $34 million in the till over the next four seasons, or what figures to be at least half of their operating budget for 2011. (We'll see once they're on the other side of arbitration.)

As far as making an impact on the franchise's future, that much money and the freedom that comes with it is huge. If Anthopolous might not get all of that back in the kitty to do with as he pleases, whatever he's free to use his war chest for should represent a better expense. Whether the money goes to player development, scouting, the draft, a multi-year commitment to Jose Bautista, an offer to a real bopper at first base next winter... whether it's some or all of these things, it's part and parcel of a better Blue Jays future than another mailed-in fourth-place finish.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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