How Could Wells Earn His Contract?

One final post on Vernon Wells from me today, and then tomorrow we’ll move on to something else. However, I wanted to tackle one last angle before we dismiss this as just one of the worst trades ever – namely by asking, what would Wells have to do to earn the remainder of his deal?

Let’s start with a few assumptions. The cost of a win has been about $5 million this winter, even on four-year deals such as the ones given to Adam Dunn and Victor Martinez. This was not the only way the Angels could have chosen to spend the money and avoid a longer term commitment to a player like Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre, and we have to account for the opportunity cost – those players that the Angels could have signed instead of acquiring Wells’ deal.

There have also been several contract extensions this winter that suggest Major League teams are expecting inflation to continue in the future, so we need to estimate a higher dollar-per-win cost in the future. We’ll estimate five percent growth in cost per win over each of the next three offseasons.

We’re also going to assume that Juan Rivera’s $5.25 million dollar contract was a complete sunk cost, in that they couldn’t have recouped any of that money by making him available to the other 29 teams. That’s probably not true, but we don’t have any way of knowing how much of his deal a team would have been willing to absorb, so this is our safest option. We will not make the same assumption for Mike Napoli, however – the Angels freely chose to tender him a contract in November, and there was a great deal of reported trade interest in his services, so both their actions and that of other teams suggest that Napoli’s trade value outweighed his cost in salary.

By removing the $5.25 million that Rivera was set to make, we end up with net salary additions of $17.75 million in 2011 and $21 million in each of 2012 to 2014 for a grand total of $80.75 million over the next four years. What level of production would Wells need to meet in order to justify those prices?

With our dollar-per-win and inflation assumptions in place, we can simply divide the money they’ll be paying Wells by those costs and determine what assumed value the Angels should expect for the price. The yearly WAR expectations?

2011: +3.6 WAR
2012: +4.0 WAR
2013: +3.8 WAR
2014: +3.6 WAR

There’s a required spike in production next winter to account for the fact that Rivera’s salary only offsets Wells’ money this year, in case you’re curious. Those four years add up to a total of +15 WAR. Over the last four years, there are three outfielders who have produced essentially +15 WAR, and they provide three pretty good examples of what you’d need to expect from Wells based on your own personal opinion of his defense.

UZR is not a fan of his, but I know that there is still skepticism over defensive metrics, so these three examples will serve as a guide as to what you should expect from Wells’ bat depending on what you already believe about his glove. To the examples:

If you think Wells is still an above-average defensive center fielder…

Your comparison is then B.J. Upton. From 2007 to 2010, Upton hit .261/.350/.424 while also stealing 150 bases at a pretty efficient clip, all of which was good for a .346 wOBA. UZR rated his defense in center field as +11.6 runs over that time period, and the total package added up to +14.5 WAR. If you don’t agree that Wells has lost a step (or two) in the outfield, and still him view as a plus center fielder, then you’re hoping for an offensive output somewhere in the Upton range in order to justify the price.

If you think Wells is an above-average defensive corner outfielder…

Most people won’t agree with the sentiment above, as even those who distrust metrics like UZR have seen Wells lose a significant amount of speed over the last few years. However, just because he’s probably not cut out for center field anymore doesn’t mean he’s Manny Ramirez, and if you stick him in a corner spot, he might actually look decent. In this case, your comparison is Nick Markakis, a right fielder who has hit .299/.371/.466 over the last four years, and whose UZR over that time frame has been +6.8. His .364 wOBA and above average defense in a corner outfield spot have added up to +15.2 WAR since 2007.

If you think Wells is a below-average defensive corner outfielder…

Perhaps you’re not even convinced of Wells’ ability to be an asset as a left fielder, however. After all, he’s 32 years old, and his skills have already started to diminish in the field. If you see the move to a corner outfield spot as simply a last ditch effort to salvage any defensive value, but don’t expect him to be an asset out there either, then your comparison is Magglio Ordonez. His UZR over the last four years has been -6.8, squarely below average but not an atrocity. He’s compensated for that with some pretty fine hitting, however, putting up a .327/.394/.506 line that is good for a .389 wOBA. The total package has been worth +14.8 WAR.

Good defensive CF? .346 wOBA.
Good defensive LF? .364 wOBA.
Poor defensive LF? .389 woBA.

Those are the targets that Wells would have to reach, while staying pretty healthy and playing most everyday for each of the next four years. Over the last four years, Wells has posted a .333 wOBA, falling short of all three marks. However, in two of the last three seasons, his offense was in the acceptable range, as he put up a .357 mark in 2008 and a .364 mark in 2010. He also had strong offensive seasons in 2003 and 2006, if you want to go back even farther.

Wells has had four seasons at the plate good enough to justify this contract. The problem is that it has taken him nine tries in order to produce those four years, and now he has to go four-for-four while entering his mid-30s. If you think we’re being too hard on the Angels here, well, that’s the burden that the contract places upon him. They are essentially paying him to repeat his 2003-2006 years (he was 24-27 at the time) at the plate while simultaneously hoping that defensive metrics have judged him incorrectly.

If Wells can hit like he did when he was younger, if he can stay healthy for four consecutive years, and if he’s a better defender than most people seem to think, than he might be worth the money. That’s an amazing amount of risk for some really limited upside, though.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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13 years ago

What is this 4 articles on the V Wells trade? lol. That’s ok, this trade merits that level of analysis.

It will probably be referenced 100 times before it’s forgotten.