The name once synonymous with the future of the JP Ricciardi led Toronto Blue Jays has now been transformed into the name most synonymous with failure and utter disappointment. I dug up the following out of the archives:
“All-Star center fielder Vernon Wells agreed Friday night to a seven-year, $126 million contract extension with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Wells’ pact, the sixth-largest in baseball history, would give him a $25.5 million signing bonus, no-trade clause and guarantee him the right to opt out of his contract after four years. In addition, he could earn bonuses of $250,000 for MVP, $200,000 for World Series MVP, $150,000 for league championship series MVP and $100,000 for receiving the most votes in his league in All-Star game balloting.”
At the time of the signing, Peter Gammons called him a legit top-5 centre fielder and one of the top fielding CF in the game (FYI – Wells has only posted positive UZR numbers three times in his career). He went on to state he was well worth the new contract extension he signed with the Jays. A man the Jays had to sign to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox going forward. To be honest, I don’t remember many Blue Jays fans or analysts who were overly outspoken against this move.
Wells signed this monstrosity of a contract after the 2006 season. That season Wells played in 154 games, had 185 hits, 40 doubles and 32 HRs. He also posted a respectable 7.5 UZR in CF for the Jays that year and clearly was an above average defender. With the combo of a solid offensive campaign and above average glove at a premium position V-Dub was worth 5.8 wins above replacement level, a career high for Wells. He also had a respectable .382 wOBA on the season and he even managed to swipe 17 bases for a Blue Jays team that absolutely hates the stolen base, or more accurately the “caught stealing” stat.
Overall it was a great 2006 season for Wells, but in retrospect it didn’t come without its share of red flags. He wasn’t showing improved patience at the plate (8.1% walk rate), though he wasn’t whiffing at an alarming pace either (15.2%). He was fishing outside of the strike zone a bit much (28% outside zone swing rate) His HR/FB ratio for the season was 15%, slightly above his career rate of 11.8% though that could have swayed his HR total by about 5-6 HRs, nothing to sneeze at come contract time.
To call him a one-year wonder wouldn’t have been fair either. He was an above average hitting CF for pretty much his entire career up until 2006. In 2003, he posted his best season with a .386 wOBA, belting 33 HRs and adding 49 doubles and posting a respectable 317/359/550 slash line in 161 games. He hit a consistent amount of HRs, drove in his share of runs and played slightly above or right at league average defence centre field until from 2001 until 2006.
Let’s fast forward to 2009. To call Wells season anything other than miserable would be a blatant lie. His slash line of 250/302/392 is barely passable even at a premium defensive position like CF. Wells hasn’t benefited from much luck this season, his BABIP sits a .271 and his paltry 13 HRs can be attributed to his rather unlucky HR/FB rate of 6.5% (a career low – and half of his career rate). He hasn’t squared the ball as much this year (line drive rate 14.5%), but his fly ball and ground ball rates are right at his career averages. Even his outside-zone swing percent is at 24.2%, which is lower than both his 2006, 2007 and 2008 rates.
This season Vernon Wells has a negative WAR (wins above replacement). That’s right, Wells has been so miserable with the bat and glove this season he has actually been a full win WORSE than a replacement level player (for example, a Russ Adams). Again, among all qualified players in the major leagues, Vernon Wells is the least valuable player in the game. Furthermore, according to fangraphs expected salary based on his current WAR, Wells actually owes the Jays 4.4 million dollars this year. For comparison, in 2006, Wells actually gave the Jays the value of a player worth 21.4 million dollars.
So I guess that leaves only one question, what happened? The halo that shone brightly above Vernon’s bald head quickly dissipated after Wells struggled pretty mightily in 2007. While Wells rebounded slightly in 2008, he has nearly hit rock bottom in 2009. As miserable a season that Wells is having with the bat, he has been equally miserable with the glove. His UZR currently sits at -18.5, good for dead last among qualified CF. For those interested Adam Dunn currently has a -21.9 UZR in the OF (albeit at LF/RF).
In my opinion Vernon Wells just happened to cash in at the perfect time. It was the perfect storm for a player coming off a fairly good season and who was coined as the must have “Franchise” player by fans and media alike. The economy was stronger, the Jays were actually spending money and the overall knowledge of the game (especially in regards to defence) wasn’t nearly as strong even three years ago as it is today.
One final note, under the extension, Wells has the right to terminate his agreement after the 2011 season and become eligible for free agency. A man can dream can’t he?