Vernon Wells is still owed $42 million the next two years on one of the worst contracts in baseball history. (Getty Images)
Over the past two years, few players have disappointed to as great an extent as Vernon Wells. Since being traded from the Blue Jays to the Angels in January 2011 — three seasons into a seven-year, $126 million contract — he has become the game's most expensive benchwarmer and a leading cause of his team missing the playoffs twice. If they handed out the Least Valuable Player award, he'd have a good case; during his time in Anaheim, he has hit an abysmal .222/.258/.409 in 791 plate appearances while making $44 million. He still has $42 million remaining on his deal for this year and next year.
On Monday, Wells told reporters that he plans on retiring at the end of the contract, leading to an easy punchline: some would say he already has. Given his big pile of money, his recent performance and his desire both to spend more time with his children and to parlay his fortune into a role as a major league owner, his reasons for doing so are no great mystery, though the decline of his skills still is.
A former first round pick back in 1997 — chosen fifth in the draft out of a Texas high school — Wells was a pretty good player up through 2006, hitting a combined .288/.336/.492 in five full seasons and change, and averaging 37 doubles, 28 homers and nine steals per year. He was coming off a .303/.357/.542 season with 32 homers and his third straight Gold Glove award when general manager J.P. Ricciardi signed him to that monster deal, the sixth-largest in history at the time (now tied for 24th). Almost he immediately, he cratered, hitting .245/.304/.402 with 16 homers in 2007. Offseason surgery to repair his labrum and remove a cyst in his right (throwing) shoulder appeared to help; his bat rebounded in 2008 but a broken left wrist and a hamstring strain each cost him about four weeks on the disabled list that year.
He remained healthy but followed a similar bust/boom pattern in 2009 and 2010 — offseason surgery to repair cartilage in his left wrist between those two seasons may have helped — and Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos wisely unloaded him just before his heavily backloaded deal got very expensive, sending Wells to the Angels in exchange for Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli. The latter was quickly flipped to the Rangers, whereupon he became Mike Scioscia's worst nightmare due to his breakout performance (.320/.414/.631 with 30 homers) and vengeance wrought on Anaheim's pitching staff (.378/.425/.946 with six homers in 40 PA).
It's not a huge stretch to say that the deal cost the Angels a playoff spot that year, when they finished 10 games back in the AL West and five back in the wild card race; the difference between Napoli's 5.3 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) and Wells' −0.8 was over six wins. The same can be said for last year, when the Angels finished four games behind the Rangers in the wild card race; Wells was a bit better (0.5 WAR) but his presence led the team to keep Mike Trout in the minors until late April. All Trout did after arriving in Anaheim was put up a monster 10.7 WAR.
Wells has spent time on the DL with groin and thumb injuries during those two years; the latter required in-season surgery to repair a ligament. His power (36 homers and .187 isolated power in two years) has prevented him from truly being the game's Least Valuable Player, at least according to WAR; his 0.3 isn't even in the bottom 200 among position players with at least 100 plate appearances in that span. Of course, none of those guys were making $44 million while costing their team a slugging catcher or a shot at a bit more playing time for a generational talent. Wells' real performance distinction (dis-STINK-tion?) is his .258 on-base percentage in that span, the fourth-lowest of any player with at least 500 PA across the past two years:
Drilling down a bit, that low OBP is a function of the majors' lowest BABIP among that same group of 304 hitters (.218, four points lower than Chone Figgins) and an already-low unintentional walk rate that dipped from 6.4 percent through 2010 to 4.6 percent since; the latter mark ranks 27th out of those qualifying hitters. The PITCHf/x data says he's chasing more pitches outside the strike zone and making more contact with pitches in the zone, but not by wide margins over his pre-2011 rates. It may be that the cumulative effect of his injuries has simply caught up to him, and that he's failed to make the necessary adjustments to remain productive.
With so much money remaining on his deal, Wells isn't likely going anywhere this year, though one presumes the Angels will cut him adrift next winter and eat the remaining salary, much as the Mariners did this past winter for Figgins. In the meantime, he'll ride the pine in Anaheim while Trout, Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo take up the bulk of the outfield playing time, hoping that he can play his way out of the doghouse if the opportunity presents itself.