The Blue Jays and Vernon Wells have agreed to a 7 year, $126 million contract to keep him north of the border for the rest of his productive years. This is for the best on Vernon Wells side of the contract, as he will be paid $18 million per year in average annual value while staying in an offensive haven that inflates his statistics.
How well off the Jays will end up remains to be determined. Wells does not have the same problems in his batted-ball data that I usually work with in these profiles, but instead has a stark contrast between his home and road statistics that brings his true value into question.
Vernon Wells, the son of the former Canadian Football League wide receiver of the same name, was drafted by the Blue Jays in the first round of the 1997 amateur draft, fifth overall. He had been a First Team High School All-American outfielder at Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas his senior year. His professional debut came in the same year at Low-A St. Catharines of the New York-Penn League, where he hit an impressive .307/.377/.504 at age 18. His 10.2 percent walk rate was a welcome sight for a young hitter, and he also managed to drop roughly 40 percent of his hits for extra bases. He was named the second-best prospect in the New York-Penn League by Baseball America for his strong showing.
For his efforts, he was promoted to Single-A Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League, and saw a dip in his power. His .285/.348/.426 line represented over a 100 point drop in OPS, although three quarters of that drop was in his slugging alone. His walk rate dipped a few percentage points as well, and his XBH% dropped to 33 percent, but his strikeout rate was a steady 15 percent upon promotion. Baseball America rated him the fifth best prospect in the Jays organization, and ninth best in the South Atlantic League despite the drops; he would rebound considerably in 1999 at four different levels of baseball:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Dun.(A+) 265 .343/.403/.543 .340 32% .200 18 8.9% 11.7% Kno.(AA) 106 .340/.400/.519 .330 31% .179 8 10.2% 12.7% Syr.(AAA) 129 .310/.357/.481 .279 33% .171 9 7.2% 15.8% Tor.(MLB) 88 .261/.293/.352 .136 26% .091 5 4.3% 19.6%
Vernon did very well for himself at three levels of the minors, cutting down on his strikeouts at High-A and Double-A while upping his power game. His plate discipline took a hit at Triple-A Syracuse and in Toronto, with his walks dropping around three percentage points each level and his strikeout rate increasing around the same. Wells’ Batting Average on Balls in Play from these four stops were .364, .375, .350 and .319, respectively; those first three figures are higher than they should be, given Wells’ batted-ball tendencies over the years and their distance from the average BABIP, while the .319 is much more normal. Wells had quite the productive year, but he ended it essentially how he should have given his somewhat inflated minor league numbers. This is not to take anything away from Wells; he was only 20 years old and succeeded at three increasing difficult levels before falling apart in a short major league stint. On a more fun-filled note, Wells participated in the Futures Game at Fenway Park during the All-Star break for Team USA, and was named the best prospect in the organization by Baseball America, as well as the top defensive outfielder in the International League.
Wells would spend almost the entire 2000 season with Triple-A Syracuse, where he would hit for a line that looked similar in some regards to his Toronto stint the year before:
Since I mentioned BABIP inflation in 1999, I need to mention that his BABIP was well below the expected averages in 2000, coming in at a very low .267. His walk rate did improve from his previous Triple-A stint, and his power improved in both Isolated Power and XBH%. His 2001 season looked like an improvement on the surface, but if you dig a bit deeper, that is not really the case:
Even though his batting average improved, his power took a hit along with his walk rate, not exactly something you want to see from someone in their third stint at Triple-A. His walk rate was getting much closer to that level where it is highly batting average dependent rather than walk driven. Luckily for Vernon, he was a centerfielder with an incredible glove, so a bat like this could certainly suffice in the majors. He was also only 22.
The Jays would leave him in the majors from here on out, with his first full season coming in 2002. Baseball Prospectus 2002 was somewhat reluctant to hand Wells the keys in center:
The Blue Jays intend to shake things up this season, which means that Wells will open the season as the starting center fielder. Wells has made very little progress since his breakout 1999 campaign, still hacking at pitches early in the count and trying to pull everything. He says he’ll be an improved hitter in the majors, a feat that will entail making major adjustments at the plate. If it’s going to be such a snap, why didn’t he do it in his two-year stint at Syracuse?
Wells only hit .275/.305/.427 in 159 games as the Jays centerfielder while walking in only 4.2 percent of his plate appearances, a rate consistent with his previous time in a Jays uniform. Interestingly enough, his line drive rate was fairly high, yet he did not manage to have any extra hits drop in due to it. Given his line drive rate, Wells should have had a BABIP of close to .360, but instead finished around 80 points below that. This was a one-year fluke for line drive rate though − 24 percent in 2002, much closer to 20 percent and below every other year − so it is inconsequential in the long run, just something interesting to note.
Wells would breakout in about the best way possible in 2003, hitting .317/.359/.550 with an increase in his walk rate and a significant boost in his power game. He also crossed 200 hits for the first and only time in his professional career, finishing at 215. He did not go hitless in three consecutive games all season, and had two months with over 40 hits. This is also the last season in Vernon Wells’ career where his home and road splits were somewhat even.
A terrific ballplayer, Wells gives the Jays a second identifiable star in the lineup beyond Delgado. Beyond a slow start in April and a tough July when he didn’t have many people to drive in while still hitting, there really wasn’t a wart on his breakout season. Don’t let yourself fall into the temptation to compare him to Garret Anderson as a hitter who can hit without being overly patient: Wells is better. Not just because he’s more patient, but because of his power and centerfield defense. While you can expect his average to continue to bounce around, the power will be a constant. He’s filling out with age, which gets exaggerated by an organizational reluctance to run, but on a practical level, it might mean a move to an outfield corner in another year or two.
PECOTA forecasted a .295/.344/.506 2004 season for Vernon, but he fell a bit short of the mark. His next three seasons were a mix of improvement and stagnation, as odd as that sounds:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2004 536 .272/.337/.472 .308 40% .200 36 8.6% 14.1% 2005 620 .269/.320/.463 .277 37% .194 33 6.9% 12.7% 2006 611 .303/.358/.542 .349 42% .239 45 8.0% 13.3%
His walk rates continued to fluctuate, although they at least stayed within the 7-8 percent range, a much more productive level than his previous outputs. The batting average still made or broke his on-base percentage, and the power production was there for the most part, even with the sub-.500 slugging percentages. Looking at his batted-ball data…
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP 2004 3.4 37.9% 17.6% 44.5% N/A 12.5% .286 .296 2005 3.4 40.1% 18.8% 41.1% 21.7% 12.0% .275 .308 2006 3.4 40.2% 18.3% 41.5% 12.2%% 14.2% .313 .303
Except for 2005, his BABIP ended up basically where his expected BABIP said it should; adding in the difference between eBABIP and BABIP to his season line gives us a .302/.353/.496 season, assuming all of the missing hits were singles. This, along with his 2003 season, make his second coming in 2006 much more believable. His BABIP suffers on occasion due to his high flyball rates; a high flyball rate usually means a lower BABIP. There was a slight discrepancy in his offensive abilities, as previously mentioned, and that is his home and road splits:
2004 2005 2006 Home .298/.371/.549 .291/.346/.500 .330/.375/.663 Road .249/.306/.402 .248/.295/.428 .276/.340/.422
It’s clear that Wells is greatly aided by his home park, but lucky for the Jays’ sake, he will be playing there through at least 2011. I’ve been fairly vocal as of late about how signing Wells to a long-term deal via free agency would be less than intelligent, given his declining defensive abilities − The Fielding Bible has Wells at only +6 from 2003-2005, and David Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range has Wells as average for 2006 − and his reliance on the Rogers Centre to keep his offensive output stable, but the Jays can afford to keep Wells around for a few years during the early years of his contract, due to its structure.
His extension does not kick in until 2008, which means Wells will only make $5.6 million in 2007. Once the extension kicks in, Wells will only make $500,000 base salary with one-third of his $25.5 million signing bonus making the total year’s value $9 million.
The entire contract breaks down like this, paying Wells until the year 2014 if he doesn’t opt out before the 2012 season:
- $25.5M signing bonus, paid by 2010.
- 2007: $5.6 million
- 2008: $500,000
- 2009: $1.5 million
- 2010: $12.5 million
- 2011: $23 million
- 2012: $21 million
- 2013: $21 million
- 2014: $21 million
Essentially, the Jays have Wells on the cheap, given the market, from 2007-2009, and then have to pay up for two years, although even that could be relatively cheap if the market continues to inflate. By then, Wells will most likely be in an outfield corner, so his defense should not take a serious hit value-wise, but he will need to produce at his 2005-2006 level in order to earn his money.
This was a well done extension by J.P. Ricciardi, as he will have one of the better centerfield bats in the league around for a relatively low price for three of the next five years; of course, if Wells decides not to opt out of his contract, the Jays will be stuck paying $21 million per season for three additional years to an aging corner outfielder with a full no-trade clause who may not have the bat for the position. It’s a worthwhile risk considering the Jays team is built to win now, and Wells’ contract gives them some flexibility towards adding another piece or two. Of course, if the Jays do something silly like deal the inexpensive Alexis Rios − the only player on the roster capable of taking over in center field for Vernon Wells defensively who has a bat (.294 EqA last year) to boot − they will regret it once Wells gets older, bigger and more expensive. That is, unless they win within the next few years, but that is far from a given in the powerful American League. Wells should also be pleased that he’s staying in Canada, because his recent trends in home/road data forecast a serious decline in production if he was anywhere but an offensive haven.
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A quick note: In my Josh Phelps profile last week, I mentioned that his increasing groundball rate in 2004 was not a positive for a former catcher with back and knee surgeries in his history. Apparently, going into 2007 his back and knees are both “100% and non-issues.” That would make the increasing groundball rate an issue insofar as it means fewer flyballs and line drives, but since his rates have smoothed out since 2004, neither scenario is currently problematic for Phelps.