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March 24, 2010

Checking the Numbers

All's Wells That Ends Wells

by Eric Seidman

Vernon Wells was once considered a rising star and potential face of a franchise, this on a club that lacked an identity and toiled in obscurity after winning consecutive championships in the early '90s. Taken with the fifth overall pick in the 1997 draft, Wells shot through the Jays' system and received late-season call-ups in each year from 1999-2001, garnering big-league experience as a 20-year-old. Now, when I mentioned the idea of writing a Wells-centric article to my father, a knowledgeable albeit more casual fan, his reaction was, "He’s still on the Jays, right?" Something tells me that if Wells had produced anywhere near the expectations bestowed upon him as a youngster that my dad would have known, without question, that Wells still roamed center field in Toronto.

Over the last few seasons the combination of a lack of productivity at bat and afield, on top of the massive extension he signed before the 2007 season, has resulted in Wells becoming known more for his contractual exploits than his actual skills. And rightly so, as his seven-year, $126-million extension is an albatross that rates high among financial albatrosses (albatri?). While Alex Anthopolous certainly didn’t propose the deal himself, the new Jays GM inherited an interesting dilemma, one I'll explore in terms of what can and/or should be done with this disappointing yet highly-paid employee. Before moving forward, however, I must throw a caveat your way in my best Yoda impression: a bad contract a bad player does not make.

Conflating Contracts and Talent

Acquiring a bad player and making a bad move are very different animals. Consider the infamous Victor Zambrano/Scott Kazmir deal. At the time, Zambrano was a decent starter and Kazmir had never thrown a major-league pitch. Acquiring Zambrano was not the problem for the Mets, but rather what they gave up to bring him in. Opining that the deal cost them too much before even finding out how broken Zambrano truly was did not mean that Mets fans hated Zambrano personally—though he stank—or would not root for him. It simply meant that they did not approve of the means by which he joined the team. Sometimes it can lead to personal hatred but this isn’t an automatic sentiment.

At the end of the 2006 season, then-GM J.P. Ricciardi inked Wells to the massive contract extension mentioned above. Wells was 28 years old and coming off of an excellent campaign, one in which he hit .303/.357/.542 with 40 doubles and 32 home runs while earning a Gold Glove. The deal was back-loaded but with signing bonus funds disbursed each March from 2008-10, it was one paying him $40 million from 2008-10, with the remaining $86 million from 2011-14. At the time, Jays fans certainly considered the price to be steep, given that Wells’ career slash rates to that point were .288/.336/.499, but the investment did not look quite as awful as it does with hindsight goggles.

Wells is not a great player, but his skills are not worse because of his contract. His value has dwindled drastically, but value and skills are not one and the same. They are related, but not twins. Or, if they’re twins, then value is Danny DeVito, and skills is Arnold Schwarzenegger. In spite of Wells' substantially lowered value due to an immovable contract, he isn’t completely valueless, but the vitriol spewed in his direction for hitting .265/.317/.426 over the last three seasons while making the sort of money associated with .305/.390/.550 makes it seem like the man doesn’t deserve a job, period. Does he?

The "Value" of Vernon Wells

The contract is awful, no ifs, ands, or buts, especially when you consider that he has never really produced all that well to begin with, but if he were available for nothing—and in baseball, nothing in this context means the major-league minimum salary of $400,000—do you really think no team would seek his services? Because if teams would bring him aboard at the right price, then he still has some value. Eric Byrnes doesn’t produce well enough to earn $11 million, but at $400,000? Sure, sign me up!

If the Blue Jays decided to eat the entire contract, teams like the Mets or Royals, for example, would likely jump to sign him as they represent outfield-starved organizations where even a .265/.317/.426 line represents a potential upgrade. It doesn’t mean Wells automatically starts, but if Carlos Beltran misses a month, I know I’d feel more comfortable with Wells than Li'l Sarge. At the same time, Wells isn’t in a situation similar to Magglio Ordonez, who receives big bucks in his decline years, but who still posts OBPs north of .370, with power to boot. While someone like Ordonez could still start if acquired after the Tigers ate his contract, Wells would likely be relegated to injury fill-ins, late-inning replacements and bench duty, and would probably best serve a team in a platoon situation.

What’s Done Is Done

One thing should be abundantly clear: this contract cannot be undone. Anthopolous is not going to find another GM who will absorb the contract. Wells is not Alex Rios. Heck, Anthopolous probably couldn’t have even gotten that to happen if he threw in a free Lind and a Halladay. We can joke about Ed Wade and Dayton Moore all we want, but even they aren’t going to absorb the contract. (Though to be fair, Wade might have, had Wells been a Phillie at any point in his career.) Other teams aren’t going to look at Wells at even a fraction of the price either, so this isn’t a matter of the Jays paying half or three-quarters of the deal, when players like Ryan Langerhans are freely available for similar production.

This leaves the Jays with three options:

  1. Trade Wells, and pay him all but the minimum;
  2. Release him outright;
  3. Play him.

In all three of the above scenarios, Wells makes the remaining $107 million on his contract from the Blue Jays ($12.5 million plus his $8.5-million signing bonus in 2010, $23 million in 2011, and then $21 million in each of the 2012-14 seasons) minus the league minimum if he ends up elsewhere. Knowing that the Jays are going to pay him no matter what, which of these three makes the most sense for their direction?

In Scenario No. 1, what are they even going to get back? Teams aren’t lining up to trade Brett Wallace-level prospects for players of Wells’ ilk, even when the Blue Jays are shouldering the entire financial burden. The team is going to pay him $107 million over the next five years but do they really need more organizational soldiers like Mike Morse in return? Then again, something is better than nothing, and if the Jays could extract risky prospects outside of Kevin Goldstein’s Top 101, that could help them. If several things go right, this would certainly constitute an avenue worth pursuing.

In Scenario No. 2, the goal would be to remove his name from the lineup card and replace it with someone like Elijah Dukes. After all, when paying an average annual value of $21.4 million per year, the financial implications of adding the $700,000 that a Dukes-type player makes is about as insignificant as it gets. Another goal in this scenario is a superficial one—end the Wells era in Toronto. It has left a bad taste in the mouths of Jays fans, and they may want a fresh start. Cutting him loose even for nothing in return and starting over with Anthopolous at the helm might signify a big step in the right direction.

In Scenario #3, Wells does his average-or-below thing, and that’s that. After all, when Jose Bautista is starting in an outfield corner, John Buck is your starting catcher, and the left side of your infield consists of an old and hobbled Alex Gonzalez and the perpetually disappointing Edwin Encarnacion, it stands to reason that Wells isn’t the only hole in the lineup.

Channel Your Inner Anthopolous: Be the Blue Jays GM, and tell me, which of these scenarios would you opt to go with, and why?

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

Related Content:  Contract Extension,  Vernon Wells

24 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Peter Hood

BP's own PECOTA estimates suggest a $20M value for Wells over the 2010-14 period so it's not altogeher impossible that the Jays could pay enough of his contract for some team to want him. Also given that they don't seem to have a ready-made CF in their system, employing Wells in CF for the next couple of years seems a no-brainer - he's certainly not blocking anyone's development. And he does provide at least replacement level production and perhaps more in CF - although admitedly his defensive metrics seem to be slipping.

I suspect that they'll keep him for a couple of more years and then arrange for a buyout package (with deferred payments) that leaves him a free agent.

Mar 24, 2010 09:38 AM
rating: 1
 
OonBoon

Is the contract insured against injury?

In one of the stranger incidences in baseball history, on April 1st, 2010, Colema... whooops Wells was horribly injured in a tarp machine mishap. Before Game 1 of the Season, Wells was on the field when the decision was made to cover the field because of a light rain somehow leaking through the dome roof. Wells failed to notice that 12 mechanical tarp rollers approaching him from every direction had come onto the field to "keep the infield dry." Tarp machines rolled over Wells' legs, arms, toes, chest, ears, nose, and hair, crushing every bone in his body beyond repair and ending his season. Seven years later he re-emerged from Bill Gates' secret lair as MSWells, Seattle bio-slugger.

Mar 24, 2010 09:54 AM
rating: 3
 
tdrury

You have forgotten the 4th option, something which is always an option in solving a problem. Murder.

Mar 24, 2010 10:00 AM
rating: -1
 
Ben L

hilarious!

Mar 25, 2010 16:37 PM
rating: 0
 
Mike W
(830)

You have to play him. He's certainly very capable of league-average performance, and there's the possibility of a random good year as well. Noone will take him off your hands for more than a league-average CF is worth. As the article states over andover, his play isn't the problem, it's his contract. You really can't fix the latter, so there is nothing to be done. Bummer.

Or maybe a Wells-Soriano challenge deal?

Mar 24, 2010 10:05 AM
rating: 3
 
Jack G

Bring in Ron Washington to "mentor" him? At best he gets suspended, at worst maybe a little more pep?

Mar 24, 2010 10:16 AM
rating: -1
 
Wharton93

You play him since you are paying anyway. The closer you get to the end of his contract the more palatable a trade might become. ie, nobody will touch him now but if in the final year he happens to be having a very good year, somebody might want him for half a season, or slightly more.

Also, you put him on waivers every August and hopes Kenny Williams comes calling again, too.

Mar 24, 2010 10:20 AM
rating: 6
 
CRP13

Gotta go with #3. Since the Jays don't stand to gain anything by any of the three scenarios, and they are in no danger of competing for a playoff spot regardless of which scenario is chosen, they might as well play him and wait for the Sniders and Wallaces of the world to develop, not to mention their young pitching staff. It's not like he's blocking an up-and-coming CF right now.

They can always pursue options 1 or 2 in coming seasons if they feel they are closer to contention, the decision doesn't need to be made now.

Mar 24, 2010 10:21 AM
rating: 3
 
buffum
(458)

I would use a hybrid of all three, using a "Sliding Schmuck" Scale to tie the quality of the returned player to the percentage of his salary I would pay. For example, if I have to pay all but the minimum, I will demand a good prospect. If you will pay a significant portion (say, $5-8M per year), I will literally accept a dead person as a PTBNL. Any number in between slides from good to dead.

Implicit in this process is that I set the bar high. If I don't get a good return, I play him. He's not valueless until I have five outfielders who can play better than he can, something Toronto doesn't have. If I ever get five outfielders and he is an actual roster sink, I'd change the Sliding Schmuck Scale to allow his trade for a much lesser return. If no one bites, THEN I release him.

Mar 24, 2010 10:34 AM
rating: 3
 
bravejason

Play him. His PECOTA card ten-year forecast gives a park-adjusted TAv of .269 for 2010 and park-neutral TAv of .263 or .264 for 2011-2014. Noting that TAv league average is set to .260, I conclude that Mr. Wells is an average offensive player. He may be overpaid, but his offensive performance shouldn't be holding the team back (of course, you might argue that in the AL East an average offensive player is a liability). I wouldn't worry about replacing an average player until I had completed upgrades to the rest of the roster.

Mar 24, 2010 10:50 AM
rating: 5
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Yeah this is the one option people seem averse to mentioning but once you say it out loud it makes all the sense in the world. It ties into #2 as well if you think about it -- why not get Dukes or someone like that to replace Bautista. Either way you pay Wells all that money and still have holes elsewhere. He's an average-ish player, which has value, but the real issue is the contract (duh!) which restricts how they fill other holes.

Mar 24, 2010 18:17 PM
 
fgreenagel2

Option 1. You trade him and take back a risky prospect or two. You send a message that this is a new day. Then you cut a picture out of him and put in on your door, so you can look at it before you decide to sign Mike Pelfrey to a 5 year, $82 million deal or before you go 3 for $40 million to David Ortiz. (written in Jay McInrney style 2nd person).

Mar 24, 2010 11:52 AM
rating: 0
 
khaulotte

Option #4 - Andrew Joneski - Go to Vernon and say, "look - we both know that this has not worked out for us - we could trade you if you restructured your contract and essentially receive an annuity for the rest of your life which would pay you what is owed with no time value of money adjustments"

Wells would not be taking less money, but from a time value perspective he would be allowing the Jays to reduce the bath in half. Then, in turn, the Jays could trade Wells anywhere he wants to go for nothing. Wells is set for life, the Jays are free of some financial burden. Less moo-lah goes to the tax man... Win win win? or maybe not lose so bad, win win!

Mar 24, 2010 11:59 AM
rating: 0
 
jarroc

There's also Option #5: send him to Anthony Galea's office.

Mar 24, 2010 13:35 PM
rating: 0
 
snowcoast

Fold the franchise. Word is he's been to Galea's already...

Mar 24, 2010 15:58 PM
rating: 0
 
mikemcduffe

Keep him and play the momentum of the Canadian dollar. The Loonie is fast approaching par with the American dollar. There is a chance that in the next few years the U.S. buck implodes--Bush did his best to destroy it and Obama just might finish the job--and, as the Loonie rises ever higher, the VWAC (Vernon Wells Albatross Contract) will be paid off in American pesos.

Mar 24, 2010 17:59 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

My line of thinking exactly!

Mar 24, 2010 18:14 PM
 
John Carter

Wells was recovering from a shoulder operation last year, then had a wrist issue which he quietly had taken care of (hopefully) this off season. The Jays have no better option than to see if he can come back from those injuries.

If the experts in the organization really believe he is approaching unworthiness of a Major League job, then why would they have traded Michael Taylor for Brent Wallace?

The amount of money they are paying him should not be a significant factor in that decision process. They owe it no matter what they do.

Mar 24, 2010 20:17 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Play the man. There is no in the organization right now who could do better, or even halfway to what Wells is still expected to be able to do. When/if that day arrives, the thinking may/will change, but until then...
Also, his value is at a low. It will not get lower, while next year, the money owed him will drop. If he plays better, four years at $86M sounds better than 5 years at $107M.

Mar 24, 2010 20:58 PM
rating: 1
 
Brian24

His value right now is too low to make him worth trading. Play him, and hope he channels his 28-year-old self for a couple of months. If so, trade him to a contender for some value. If not, oh well, you weren't going to sniff the playoffs anyway.

Mar 25, 2010 08:27 AM
rating: 0
 
Rob_in_CT

Play him. Hope for a modest rebound or a flukey good year (BABIP driven or somesuch) and THEN try and trade him to a sucker. Right now? No chance.

Mar 26, 2010 09:28 AM
rating: 0
 
Bob1475

Play him. He's not a bad player. IF you get a hot new CF prospect then maybe you move him but for now you play him and ignore the salary as it can't be changed.

Mar 26, 2010 12:55 PM
rating: 1
 
bmnortha

Number 3 without any question. Wells is one year removed from a fine (albeit injury shortened) season, where he hit .300 .343 .496 with a very low strikeout rate.

Wells has never struck out 100 times and his bb/k ratios are remarkably consistent. Statistically his defensive numbers are down, but his baserunning (atleast at first glance statistically) seems fine. 17-4 sb/cs.

He's a similar hitter to Cal Ripken (though adjusted for league offense levels not as good). Ripken also went up and down like crazy, his good seasons look remarkably like Wells good seasons, bad seasons remarkably like Wells bad seasons.

Ripkens last real good season came at age 30, and was surrounded by awful seasons. Wells is 31 so admittedly is running out of time for another bounce back, but it could still happen. Even returning to his career averages with good risp numbers would probably lead to 110 rbi. It makes sense to me to play Wells and see what happens. If he bounces back maybe you can then trade him.

Mar 30, 2010 05:43 AM
rating: 0
 
mharrop

I'm not here to defend the Vernon Wells contract (which is one of the worst of its kind), but the Langerhans comp is maybe just a little disingenuous, no?

Career -

Wells: .280/.329/.470 - .799 OPS
Langerhans: 232/.332/.379 - .711 OPS

Are 90 fewer points of SLG and 50 fewer points of BA "similar production"?

Langerhans has never even had 350 at-bats in a season.

Mar 30, 2010 12:21 PM
rating: 0
 
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