Vernon Wells is the Angels' problem now. On a pure talent level, the trade of long-time Blue Jays center fielder Wells to Los Angeles for outfielder Juan Rivera and catcher Mike Napoli is a reasonably balanced swap: all three players are productive but flawed, and the 29-year-old Napoli is the youngest of the trio, but when you factor in the $86 million left on Wells' contract over the next four years, it becomes a crucial step in the Blue Jays' long-term efforts to climb back into contention in the powerful American League East and an acquisition that could very well prevent the Angels from being a factor in the AL West for the next two years if not more.
For second-year Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, unloading Wells and his contract is a major coup. Anthopoulos' predecessor and former boss, J.P Ricciardi, signed Wells to a seven-year, $126 million extension after the 2006 season. That year Wells, then 27, hit .303/.357/.542 with 32 home runs, 106 RBIs, and 17 stolen bases, made his second All-Star team, won his third straight Gold Glove for his play in center field, and picked up some down-ballot MVP votes.
Since then, Wells has hit just .267/.321/.450 across four injury-plagued seasons. In 2007, he played with a torn labrum in his right shoulder that prompted surgery in September. In 2008, a fractured wrist and a strained hamstring put him on the DL for nearly two full months. He managed to stay on the field in 2009, but his performance (.260/.311/.400) suggested his left wrist still wasn't right, and he went under the knife again that November. Last year, ostensibly healthy for the first time since '06, he got off to a blazing start and made his third All-Star team, but hit just .251/.300/.449 in the middle four months of the season and .227/.301/.407 on the road in a season in which the ball was flying out of the Rogers Centre. Now 32, Well is a below-average fielder in center, and his salary is set to jump from the $12.5 million he made last year to a whopping $23 million, after which he's owed $21 million for each of the next three seasons.
One of Ricciardi's last acts as Blue Jays GM was to admit making a similar mistake with Alex Rios, a younger, more athletic player whom Ricciardi had signed to a seven-year, $69.835 million extension in early 2008. Together, the Rios and Wells deals appeared likely to cripple the Jays well into the new decade, but when the White Sox's Kenny Williams claimed Rios on waivers in August 2009, Ricciardi and his bosses realized the value of shedding that bad contract and let Rios go without compensation. Anthopoulos not only rid the team of Wells' contract, but got a pair of reasonably useful players in return, and he did so by preying on the Angels' desperation.
From 2004 to 2009, the Angels won the AL West five times in six seasons, finishing second with 89 wins in the one exception. Last year, they fell to third place, finishing below .500 with just 80 wins. Mere days after the end of the 2010 regular season, Angels owner Arte Moreno pledged to do whatever it took to get his team back to the playoffs, but he and general manager Tony Reagins failed to land any of this winter's major free agents. As of Friday morning, the only offseason additions the team had made to its 40-man roster were 30-something lefty relievers Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi, both of whom signed in early December. Certainly the Angels will benefit from having first baseman Kendry Morales (broken leg) and Dan Haren (deadline acquisition) for a full season in 2011, but the frustration and desperation they felt after missing out on Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre, both of whom received competitive offers, as well as Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke was clearly in evidence in their acquisition of Wells.
So the Angels have spent their money, but they've done more harm than good. Putting aside Wells' ugly road numbers and .226/.267/.340 career line in 173 plate appearances at Angel Stadium, he's a clear upgrade on fellow 32-year-old right-handed-hitting outfielder Rivera, who shows occasional power, but won't take a walk (not that Wells will either), is a statue in the outfield and is better deployed as a fourth outfielder than as a starter. However, the upgrade there isn't as large as it might seem, maybe two wins over a full season given Wells' various weaknesses, which include hitting outside of the Rogers Centre, hitting lefties (.257/.331/.391 over the last four years with far worse numbers against southpaws in 2010), and playing center field.
If the Angels use Wells and Torii Hunter in the outfield corners with Bobby Abreu as their designated hitter and rookie Peter Bourjos in center, they'll have an outstanding defensive outfield to play behind a solid starting rotation, but a problematic lineup that will depend heavily on Morales' successful return and those three former All-Stars whose best days are behind them.
Additionally problematic is just what dealing Napoli means for the Angels catching situation. Manager Mike Scioscia has a notorious affinity for his defense-first (and -only) backstop Jeff Mathis, who just avoided arbitration by signing a one-year deal worth $1.7 million, and it has done his team nothing but harm. Per Baseball Prospectus's Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), Mathis has been worth just 0.6 wins over his entire major league career and was more than a win below replacement level in 2010 despite making just 218 trips to the plate. Mathis also threw out just 20 percent of attempting basestealers last year and has caught just 23 percent in his career against a typical league average of 25 percent and Napoli's career rate of 24 percent. The organization has a top catching prospect in soon-to-be-23-year-old Hank Conger, who got his first taste of the majors in September, but Conger, a career .297/.360/.465 hitter in the minors, is considered a sub-par receiver and thus seems likely to be forced to split time with Mathis as the power-hitting Napoli had been. Yes, the Angels needed to make room for Conger, but they moved the wrong man in doing so.
In Toronto, Napoli seems likely to serve as the primary DH while backing up rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia, who hit .301/.359/.626 with 32 home runs for Triple-A Las Vegas last year and is due to take over the primary catching duties, and Adam Lind at first base, where Napoli acquitted himself well after Morales's injury last year. Rivera, meanwhile, could fit in an outfield corner, pushing 2010 sensation Jose Bautista back to third base, where he made 45 starts last year. None of that really makes the Blue Jays look any more like a contender in their ultra-competitive division. If anything, they're doubling down on the all-or-nothing performance of their 2010 lineup, which led the majors in home runs with more than 20 percent more than the second place team, but was just ninth in runs scored due in large part to the fifth-worst on-base percentage in the game. Napoli, Rivera, and Arencibia will hit their share of taters, but they won't do a whole lot to keep the line moving in their other at-bats, nor will Wells' apparent replacement in center, Rajai Davis, who won't likely be much of an improvement in the field, either.
Of course, the point of this trade isn't necessarily to make the 2011 Blue Jays a better team, but to give Toronto the financial flexibility to make meaningful improvements in the seasons to come. On that front, it could be a crucial turning point for the franchise. As for the Angels, while they can more easily absorb a bad contract, what they've taken on is more than just a bad contract, it's a disastrous one. The Angels were already overpaying Hunter, who will make $18 million in each of the next two seasons, and still owe Gary Matthews Jr., long since removed from the organization, $11 million for the coming season, but those commitments are nearing an end. Paying Hunter and Matthews $47 million over the next two seasons is the residue of bad design, but adding $44 million for Wells alone, plus another $42 million to Wells for the two seasons beyond that proves that Reagins, who signed Hunter in one of his first moves as Angels GM, hasn't learned from the team's past mistakes.
The Angels don't have any other players signed past 2012, so Wells' contract won't be crippling, per se, but it will be limiting, and they won't get anything close to an equitable return on their investment. Never mind the players involved, none of them are difference-makers. This transaction is about the contract, and the team left holding it has lost.