Happy Jays are here again in Toronto, thanks to Vernon Wells's megadeal. But, asks a Baseball Prospectus writer, did the club overpay?
WHEN YOU consider Vernon Wells's solid 2006 (.303 average, 32 home runs, 106 RBIs), his three consecutive Gold Gloves and the eight-year, $136 million contract the Cubs gave Alfonso Soriano last month, there was no question that the 28-year-old Blue Jays centerfielder was going to make a killing, whether it came in a contract extension this off-season or in next year's free-agent market. But is the seven-year, $126 million extension he agreed to last week the (relatively) sane price tag it would appear to be?
The Baseball Prospectus PECOTA system was designed to answer questions like this one. Drawing upon a database of every major leaguer since the end of World War II, PECOTA is a prediction model that projects an individual's numbers based on up to 100 statistically comparable players. In addition to performance, the system takes into account similarities in age, position, speed and body type. In the case of Wells, PECOTA identified Ellis Burks, Jermaine Dye and Torii Hunter—each of them well-rounded outfielders who made All-Star teams in their best seasons—as being instructive comparables.
These players were not superstars, and Wells isn't either. But they aged relatively well; BP's research has shown that players who have a number of skills tend to have longer, more productive careers than one-trick ponies. For example, Burks, who retired in 2004, had a slugging percentage over .600 as late as his 36th birthday, and the White Sox' Dye is coming off a career year at age 32. PECOTA projects a .286 batting average, .348 on-base percentage and .493 slugging average for Wells in 2007, numbers about midway between those of his '05 and '06 seasons, and expects little regression in those categories for at least the first half of his new contract.
Wells's value to the Blue Jays can be further distilled to an √ºberstat known as Wins Above Replacement Player, or WARP, which estimates the number of victories that Wells will generate above what they might get from a waiver-wire pickup. In 2008, the first year of his new deal, Wells projects as a six-win player; players who had a similar rating last season include Aramis Ramirez and Vlad Guerrero. Another BP metric, Marginal Value Over Replacement Player (MORP), takes the analysis one step further by translating the value of those wins into dollars. Measured against all of the '06 free-agent contracts signed through Sunday, Wells's 5.9 projected wins in '08 are worth about $17.7 million, just a shade under his $18 million average salary.
By the time Wells is 32, though, BP projects that his productivity will start to lag significantly behind his market value. MORP builds in an 8% inflation rate, consistent with the rise in salaries since the end of the collusion era in the late 1980s. Even so, with a projected WARP of 3.0, Wells's market value will have diminished to $10.5 million by 2014, the last year of his deal. Bottom line: Toronto did a good job of assessing Wells's value in the short term. As for the risks associated with a contract that stretches past the player's 35th birthday? Consider it a necessary evil for securing a premium player who likely would've fetched at least $150 million in next year's market.
For more on PECOTA, go to baseballprospectus.com
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It's ironic that the only thing Jeff Bagwell didn't do gracefully was hit. His squat, wide-legged stance was a running clubhouse joke (Astros teammates said he could practice his swing on the john), and the hitch in his stroke would make a high school coach cringe. Those quirks did nothing to hamper his productivity, though, and in his prime Bagwell, a future Hall of Famer who was forced into retirement last week by an arthritic right shoulder, might've been the game's most complete first baseman. A Gold Glove winner and a supremely intelligent base runner, Bagwell, 38, is the only first baseman in history to exceed 400 homers and 200 steals. His decline, accelerated by injury, was swift—he played 39 games in 2005 and none in '06—but for more than a decade he was a rare force even by the inflated standards of the chemically enhanced era. For that he'll always be a hero in Houston, the only city in which he played.