After a failed bid for Carl Crawford last month, the Angels settled for trading catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera to the Blue Jays for Vernon Wells in a curious move this morning. In an offseason that included the Nationals signing 32-year old mediocre outfielder Jayson Werth to the 14th largest contract in MLB history, this might be the most bizarre move yet.
The Werth contract is probably worse in the long-term, if for no other reason than it lasts for seven years compared to Wells’ four years. But Werth has Scott Boras for an agent – I assume that the negotiation with the inept Nationals’ front office was a little bit like sandblasting a soup cracker and it got out of control too quickly for the Nationals to restore sanity. So at least the Nationals have something close to an explanation.
I don’t know what the Angels’ excuse for this travesty is. Wells has the worst contract for a position player in MLB…and the Angels willingly took on the last four years of it. To really appreciate how insane this is, we need to break down the timeline of how Wells came to be an Angel.
1. In December 2006, Wells signed a 7-year, $126 million dollar extension with the Blue Jays. He still had one year left on his current contract, so the extension kicked in for the 2008 season, when he turned 29.
The move seemed odd at the time. Peter Gammons questioned whether Wells was worth it in the article above. This post points out that the statistically superior Grady Sizemore signed a 7-year deal worth $31.45 million just before Wells inked his extension.
By 2006, Wells had already put together a strange and inconsistent career. As a 24-year old in 2003, he had a breakout season and led the league in hits and total bases while finishing with a .909 OPS. He made the All-Star Game and finished eighth in MVP voting as the Blue Jays surprisingly hung around the wild card race until mid-September.
In 2004 and 2005, Wells took a step backward. Although he had two decent seasons, he didn’t come anywhere close to his 2003 totals (.809 and .783 OPS). Still, he was a Gold Glove center fielder, so he had some value. Then in 2006, he again approached his 2003 heights. He finished with an .899 OPS and made his second All-Star Game. Apparently for the Blue Jays, this was enough to make him the then-sixth highest paid player in history.
2. The contract had an odd structure, presumably for the purposes of tax/inflation/something far more complicated for me to understand. I’m sure that this was not broken down by analysts at the time, but it became very important later.
Wells contract was actually for $100.5 million with a $25.5 million bonus. The bonus was paid in three installments of $8.5 million each in 2008, 2009, 2010. Because of this, in 2008, Wells’ base pay was only $500,000. In 2009, it jumped to $1.5 million and then skyrocketed to $12.5 million in 2010.
If you’re doing the math, you’ll see that we’re still way short of $100.5 million. The contract is ridiculously backloaded. Wells is due $23 million this year and $21 million each season between 2012 and 2014. That seemed like a pretty minor detail at the time. After all, who would have guessed that a team would actually trade for him just before the most expensive season on his contract?
3. In 2007, Wells turned 28 and had the worst season of his career. His .706 OPS was the third lowest for all major league outfielders, ahead of only Corey Patterson and Juan Pierre. His .304 on-base percentage ranked dead last among outfielders and his three-year Gold Glove streak ended. This was the year before his ginormous extension kicked in. Uh oh.
4. Wells rebounded a bit in 2008. His .840 OPS was not quite up to his 2003 and 2006 heights, but at least represented an improvement from the previous season’s catastrophe. Unfortunately, he missed two months of action with a broken wrist and a strained hamstring and only played in 108 games. Luckily for him, Barry Zito and Alfonso Soriano were bigger train wrecks, so it took some attention off of Wells’ own contract.
Coincidentally, catcher Mike Napoli had a breakout season with the Angels in 2008. While splitting time behind the plate with Jeff Mathis, he hit 20 home runs and had a .960 OPS in just 78 games.
5. 2009 was rock bottom for Wells. His stats were eerily similar to his terrible 2007 season (.311 OBP, .711 OPS), only this time people noticed. That tends to happen when your contract skyrockets from 5 years/$14.7 million to 7 years/$126.5 million.
And then there’s this now-hilarious article from November that begins: “I think we all have heard that Vernon Wells has a bloated contract and that he is incredibly un-tradeable.” Heh. By the way, the article went on to conclude that the contract was even worse than most people realized.
Meanwhile, Napoli put together a solid season (20 home runs, .842 OPS) in his first season starting in more than 100 games. 30-year old Juan Rivera had an .810 OPS in 138 games.
6. In 2010, we saw just how low the bar for poor Vernon Wells was. Wells had a “rebound” season, finishing a .331 OBP and .847 OPS and an All-Star Game selection. In June, Sports Illustrated ranked him #1 on the list of players having rebound seasons. Granted, he was hurt by a cold streak at the end of the season, but he still finished 88th in the majors in on-base percentage and 38th in OPS. As the 11th highest paid player in MLB history. And the year before he is due $23 million.
7. Carl Crawford turned 29 in August 2010. He finished the season with a line of .307/.356/.495. At 31, Wells finished with a line of .273/.331/.515. Keep those numbers in mind.
8. In December, the Angels and the Red Sox emerge as the leading contenders to sign Rays left fielder Carl Crawford. The Angels low-ball Crawford, offering him a 6-year deal worth $108 million, an average of $18 million a year. The Red Sox easily top this by offering Crawford more money and one more year. Crawford eventually signs for 7 years and $142 million, an average of just over $20 million a year.
I can’t emphasize this enough, so I’ll write it one more time: just six weeks ago, the Angels were only willing to pay a 29-year old All-Star corner outfielder $18 million a year.
9. On January 11, 2011, a long interview with Wells appeared in the Toronto Star. In the interview, Wells famously said “I would totally agree I’m not worth that contract.” The blog post I linked to considered Wells’ contract a sunk cost. That was eleven days ago.
10. On January 22, 2011, the unthinkable happens: the Blue Jays find a buyer for Wells’ huge contract. The Angels agree to trade catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera for Wells. The Angels will pick up the entirety of the contract. The 32-year old Wells will make $23 million this year and $21 million each year between 2012 and 2014.
Oh, one other thing – the Angels plan to convert Wells into a corner outfielder. Yeah.
To recap: the Angels refused to pay more than $18 million a year for a 29-year old perennial All-Star corner outfielder. However, $21+ million for a below average 32-year old corner outfielder is apparently worth the money.
In fairness, the 32-year old just rebounded to have his best full season since 2006. Of course, his numbers STILL weren’t as good as the 29-year old’s numbers.
The Angels justified this by saying that they didn’t want to sign a long-term contract that lasted more than four years. This logic is shaky at best and borderline insane at worst. Crawford is due an average of $20.6 million each season between 2014 (the season after he turns 32) and 2017, when his contract expires. Wells is due an average of $21.5 million each season after the age of 32. So the Angels are paying more for four years of production from Wells after the age of 32 than the Red Sox are paying Crawford after the age of 32. And the Angels get none of Crawford’s production between the ages of 29 and 31. Just terrible, terrible logic.
In return, the Blue Jays get a decent catcher in Mike Napoli and a guy who can replace nine-tenths of Wells’ production in Juan Rivera. And they will pay $10.55 million for the both of them. And both players are free agents after the season.
How much time passed before Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos made that deal? Did he hang up the phone and pretend to think about it for a few minutes before calling back? Or did he immediately say “Deal! No takesies-backsies!”
I imagine that he told the Angels that he’d have to think about it, hung up the phone, ran around his office for five minutes screaming like Macaulay Culkin when he found out he was home alone, and then put on his best straight face before calling back to accept the offer.
I’m still in awe of the whole thing.
Heck, maybe the Angels know something I don’t and Wells will become a superhero at the age of 32. But mark it down right now: Wells is coming off the fourth best season of his career and I still think this is the worst trade in history even if he matches those numbers. Imagine if he doesn’t produce like last year.
I think Joe Posnanski summed it up best on his Twitter: “Hunter, Abreu, Wells, Piniero … Have to say it. The Angels are absolutely favorites to win the 2002 World Series again.”