Sunday, January 23, 2011

More Thoughts on the Wells Trade

Well, it took me awhile, but I finally found someone that likes the trade that sends Vernon Wells to the Angels.  Victor Rojas, a TV commentator for the Angels, has come out strongly in support of the trade in a recent piece he wrote on  Here's what he had to say.
"The players the Angels sent to Toronto are two very good guys...I like them both personally but I believe things had run its course & it was time to move on (that actually happens in know, where a team has decided to cut ties with someone & they have some value on the market)."
On this point, Rojas is dead on.  Things had run their course with Napoli and Rivera in Los Angeles, and both probably needed to be moved.  Rivera, 32, is coming off of a terrible season in which he produced a .252/.312/.409 triple slash line, which is the very definition of a replacement level hitter.  As a player that doesn't hit for average, draw walks, run the bases well, or play adequate defense at a corner outfield position, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Rivera has an expiration date of two or three season at most.  While Rivera could show a power resurgence while playing half of his games at the homer happy Rogers Centre, it was still probably the smartest move for the Angels to move him.

Napoli, on the other hand, is an incredibly useful player that the Angels seemed to irrationally dislike.  Despite exhibiting positive baseball talents like the ability to hit for power and draw walks, the Angels seemed to prefer the light hitting Jeff Mathis over Napoli.   Why?  Defense, of course.  Never mind the fact that Mathis has actually allowed more passed balls (21 to 20), wild pitches (14 to 2), or a higher percentage of runners to steal a base (77.3% success rate to 76.1%) despite catching 614 fewer innings.  None of that matters because the Angels were convinced that Mathis was better at calling games than Napoli.  Is it true?  You tell me.  Last I checked, there's neither a viable way to measure game calling skills, nor a credible study showing that a specific catcher can have anything more than a minor impact on a pitcher's ability to perform.  The Angels were essentially basing their opinion on faith, not fact.  That's there choice.  They can run their team anyway they want.  I'm just a man at the keyboard who disagrees with their flawed thought process.  Based on their actions, it's clear that there wasn't a long term future for Napoli with the Angels.  As such, he needed to be moved to a team that appreciates his talents.
Removing the "contract" (4 years and roughly $75mm remaining after you back out the app. $11mm for Napoli/Rivera in '11) for a moment, would you have traded Napoli/Rivera for Wells in a straight baseball move? My answer is yes and that's what the Angels did with the blessing of Mr. Moreno (who, by the way, is the guy that's ACTUALLY footing the bill) and they did so without losing a draft pick and without affecting arbitration & free agency. As Mark Healy (@baseballdigest9) asked this morning - "When did #MLB fans decide that this sport is now a contest for who spends their money most wisely? Unless you're an investor, who cares?"
Contrary to popular belief, Wells is actually a pretty average ballplayer.  He has the reputation of being a plus-defender due to the three Gold Gloves he won between 2004-2006.  While he may've been deserving of that reputation at the time, that time has passed.  Since 2007, he's been among the worst defensive center fielders in the game by multiple defensive metrics (UZR, Total Zone, and DRS), and probably would benefit from a position change from center to left.  As a power hitter, Wells also has the reputation of being one of the games top hitters, but even that's undeserved.  Outside of hitting home runs, Wells's offensive skill set is pretty limited.  Wells is an "out machine" who's averse to taking a walk.  In seasons where he failed to hit for a high average (see 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2009), his OBP plummeted to unacceptable levels.  As such, he's produced below average wOBAs in two of the last four seasons.  True All-Star caliber players (especially those making $20M per season) don't produce two offensive seasons like that in such a short period of time unless they're pitchers. 

Last night on Twitter, there was an interesting exchange between Sky Kalkman and Dave Cameron.  Kalkman opined, "At $5M per win, Vernon Wells has to produce 17 WAR over the next four years, or something like 5/4.5/4/3.5. It *could* happen."  To which Cameron smartly replied, "Only 23 position players produced 17+ WAR over last four years. The worst player in that group is Curtis Granderson."  So how many WAR did Wells produce over the last four seasons?  Exactly 7.0.  Yes, that's right.  Wells was ten whole wins worse than Curtis Granderson.  While Granderson is a very nice player, I don't know of anyone that would willingly agree to pay him $80M+ over the next four years--and he's 27 months younger than Wells.  That's what makes this trade so baffling.  Wells is just not that good of a player, and at 32, he projects to decline even further.

As Kalkman stated above, using the typical regression pattern of 0.5 WAR per season, Wells would have to produce something along the lines of 5/4.5/4/3.5 WAR over the next four seasons in order to justify his contract.  For a 32 year old player who's only produced 7.0 WAR in the previous four seasons (4.0 WAR coming last year alone), it's highly unlikely the perfect scenario Kalkman presented will come to fruition.  So how will Wells actually fare over the next four years?  Based on my weighted 5/4/3 WAR regression, I have pegged Wells as being a 2.0-2.5 WAR true talent player in 2011.  Assuming a 5% increase in the average cost of a win on the free agent market, and using the same 0.5 WAR regression pattern Kalkman used above, here are my projections for the next four seasons.

                 Age      WAR          Value          Salary        Variance        Cost/Win
2011          32         2.5           $12.5M        $23M         -$10.5M          $5.00M
2012          33         2.0           $10.5M        $21M         -$10.5M          $5.25M
2013          34         1.5           $8.3M          $21M         -$12.7M          $5.51M
2014          35         1.0           $5.8M          $21M         -$15.2M          $5.80M
Total                      7.0           $37.1M        $86M         -$48.9M
Between 2011 and 2014, I project that Wells will provide $37.1M in performance based value despite receiving a salary that is more than twice that amount.  In reality, this makes Wells a sunk cost for the Angels--not an asset that will improve the team both in the short and long-term.  Furthermore, a contract of this magnitude hampers the Angels financial flexibility as they've now committed around 15-20% of their payroll to a player that may not be worthy of being a starter within two seasons.  When that happens, there's no way they'll ever be able to move Wells or his toxic contract.  No GM in their right mind, not even Brian Sabean or Jim Hendry, would take on Wells's contract unless the Angels were willing to take on an equally toxic contract like Barry Zito's or Alfonso Soriano's.  Essentially, the Angels are stuck.  They might not realize it now, but when they do, it will be far too late.

The Angels had the opportunity to spend that money more wisely on players like Carl Crawford, Cliff Lee, and Adrian Beltre, but they chose not to take that route.  Instead of making those players serious contract offers, Moreno and the Angels grossly underbid each one of them.  Then, they seemed shocked and dismayed when said players spurned the Angels for other teams with better offers.  Now, in order to placate a restless fan base and critical media, the Angels have overreacted by trading for Wells and his ridiculous contract.  You can try to remove the contract from the equation all you want, but as Rob Neyer has frequently stated, teams trade contracts not players.  Wells is owed $86M over the next four seasons, and the Angels will be picking up $81M of it.  The fact that Arte Moreno was on board with absorbing Wells's contract doesn't justify it as a strong business move.  It only shows that Moreno was either foolish or desperate enough to agree to it.

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