By Jay Jaffe
Given the combination of a decidedly unfinished roster and a spate of spring training injuries, the Yankees have spent the past few weeks picking up other teams' roster flotsam, particularly when it comes to outfielders. In the wake of Curtis Granderson's broken forearm and Mark Teixeira's wrist sprain, the month of March has seen New York add Ben Franscisco, who had been released by the Indians, and Brennan Boesch, who had been cut by the Tigers. Neither of those moves had much impact on payroll; Francisco was signed to a minor league deal, while Boesch signed a split contract that would pay him $1.5 million if he's in the majors.
On Sunday the Yankees agreed to a move that will carry a bigger cost, both financially and symbolically: if it becomes final, they will acquire the Angels' Vernon Wells, who has spent the past two years unable to live up to a seven-year, $126 million contract that still has two years and $42 million remaining. The Angels will pick up the vast majority of the 34-year-old outfielder's salary; ESPN's Buster Olney says the Yankees will pay about $13 million over the two years, and other national writers have confirmed that figure.
That's an exorbitant amount for for a player who's been worth just 0.3 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) over the past two years, and who will also cost the Yankees an as-yet-unnamed low-level minor leaguer as well. New York would do just as well to sift through its other options, which include minor leaguers Melky Mesa and Zoilo Almonte, as well as Juan Rivera and the aforementioned Francisco and Boesch.
For as much salary as they're taking on, the Yankees have at least figured out a way to make it work to their advantage for luxury tax purposes. With nearly $210 million committed for 2013, they're already certain to blow past this year's tax threshold of $178 million, but they still harbor hope of getting below next year's $189 million threshold, which would reset their marginal tax rate and allow them to obtain revenue sharing rebates. The luxury tax isn't computed based on a team's actual payroll, however. Instead it uses the average annual value of the contracts, which in Wells' case comes to "only" $18 million a year ($126 million divided by seven years). On the other hand, the cash considerations are applicable to the team's actual payroll. According to the New York Daily News, of the $13 million the Yankees are paying, $12 million will be paid this year, leaving the Angels to cover the other $9 million. That will push the Yankees' taxes even higher this year, but with the Angels paying $20 million out of next year's $21 million, the Yankees would actually get a $2 million tax credit ($20 million minus $18 million), leaving them a bit more leeway to limbo under the $189 million limit.
Wells, who was a three-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner during his time in Toronto (1999-2010, though less than 200 plate appearances before 2002), has been a near-total flop since being traded to the Angels in January 2011, perhaps not coincidentally the point when his annual salary rose above $20 million per year. He has hit an abysmal .222/.258/.409 in 791 plate appearances over the past two seasons while spending just over three months on the disabled list due to groin and thumb injuries; the latter required in-season surgery to repair a torn ligament last year.
As noted a few weeks back, Wells' power (36 homers and .187 isolated power in two years) has prevented him from truly becoming the game's Least Valuable Player. His 0.3 WAR over that span (-0.8 in 2011, 0.5 last year) isn't even in the bottom 200 among position players with at least 100 plate appearances, though none of the less valuable players were making $44 million during that time. His real performance distinction is his .258 on-base percentage over the past two seasons, the fifth-lowest of any player with at least 500 PA; driving that is a major-league-low .218 batting average on balls in play — which may owe to the cumulative impact of multiple hand injuries — and a 4.6 percent unintentional walk rate.
Though bad enough in its own right, Wells' collapse has carried an even bigger price when one considers the Angels' failure to make the playoffs in either year. The principal player dealt for him in 2011, Mike Napoli, was quickly flipped to the Rangers by Toronto and wound up being a key difference-maker in that year's AL West race for Texas, while Wells' continued presence on the roster last year was part of the reason that Mike Trout remained in the minors until late April.
In Anaheim, Wells faced the likelihood of another season as a reserve outfielder behind starters Trout, Peter Bourjos and Josh Hamilton as well as designated hitter Mark Trumbo. Exactly how he'll fit into the Yankee lineup remains to be seen. With Granderson out until early May, manager Joe Girardi will be left to pick his poison from among righties Wells, Francisco and Rivera and the lefthanded Boesch, all of whom are coming off terrible seasons with the bat:
Via True Average, which adjusts for park and league scoring environments, Wells actually had the best season of the bunch thanks to his power, but that's not exactly saying much. There isn't even a whole lot of optimism to be had in terms of platooning. Looking at each of the four players' three-year splits:
PA vs LHP
PA vs RHP
Wells has a negligible platoon split in terms of OPS, though that's being propped up by a 2010 line against righties (.291/.342/.553) that may well be part of ancient history. Boesch actually has a reverse platoon split, though the sample size isn't all that big.
In all, it's an unappealing set of options that underscores the weakness of general manager Brian Cashman's offseason work, which included a failure to find a suitable platoon counterpart for Ichiro Suzuki, who has hit just .277/.308/.361 line over the past two seasons, including .283/.307/.342 in 443 PA against lefties, and who will be expected to take over rightfield for the departed Nick Swisher. For comparison's sake, it's worth noting that Suzuki, who will be paid the same amount as Wells by the Yankees, was worth 1.8 WAR over the past two years.
With the free agent departures of Swisher, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones, the absences of Alex Rodriguez, Teixeira, Granderson and probably Derek Jeter due to injuries, the so-called Bronx Bombers will feature only one of the 10 players who hit at least 10 homers for them last year in Robinson Cano. Wells (11 homers) and free agent signing Kevin Youkilis (19 homers) do offer some power, but both are years removed from their primes as hitters. As things stand, it's entirely possible that Cano, Brett Gardner, Youkilis and Eduardo Nunez, Jeter's likely fill-in, will be the only players in the Opening Day lineup who topped the league average .320 on-base percentage as well.
Apparently, $200 million a year doesn't buy what it used to.
This article has been updated to reflect the impact of Wells' contract on the Yankees' 2013 and 2014 luxury tax status.