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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

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