Attention Teams Interested in Vernon Wells. . .
Vernon Wells turns 28 years old today. The Blue Jays center fielder has been the subject of speculation as to whether Toronto should hang onto him for the final year of his contract or trade him prior to his free agent season.
Toronto has earned an outstanding return on its investment in Wells over the years. As the fifth overall pick in the 1997 amateur draft, Wells earned a $1.8M signing bonus, then minor league and major league miniumums through 2002 before inking an extension in March 2003 that called for a $850,000 bonus and salaries of $350K, $700K, $2.9M, $4.3M, and $5.6M over the ensuing five years.
Wells is on the verge of tripling or quadrupling his salary once his contract expires at the conclusion of the 2007 season. Not wanting to pay up, the Blue Jays are now faced with the decision of what to do with their star player.
There is a lot to like about Wells. He has played in 154 or more games in four of the past five seasons, slugged 23 to 33 home runs each year, and earned three consecutive Gold Gloves for his defense. As a result, it is no surprise that there are a number of suitors looking closely at Wells. MLB Rumor Central lists the Phillies, Dodgers, Angels, and White Sox as having an interest in the soon-to-be free agent.
The Dodgers and Angels just entered into five-year commitments with Gary Matthews Jr. and Juan Pierre so it would seem implausible that one of these two teams would now go after Wells. The Phillies could upgrade from Aaron Rowand to Wells, but it just may be that Kenny Williams is in the best position to make such a deal work. The White Sox clearly need a quality CF and have excess starting pitching to deal plus the revenues to support Wells' likely new contract.
Wells is from Louisiana and could be interested in playing closer to home, making the Houston Astros or Texas Rangers a distinct possibility for his services. The Colorado Rockies and Seattle Mariners also have reportedly held preliminary discussions with the Blue Jays.
But let me offer an alternative for those teams who may be hot to trot for Wells. Rocco Baldelli. He is three years younger than Wells, has a much more team-friendly contract, and may be every bit as good. Stay with me.
According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, Baldelli signed an extension in November 2005 to avoid arbitration. His base salary will be $750K in 2007 (yes, $750,000) and $2.25M in 2008. Rocco can earn performance bonuses based on plate appearances that could lift his pay to $2.5M in 2007 and perhaps $4.5M in 2008. Furthermore, the club has a $6M option in 2009, $8M in 2010, and $9M in 2011. At most, Baldelli will cost $30M over the next five years.
Beginning in 2008, Wells will make $30M over the course of 1 1/2 seasons and will probably cost his new employer $160M over the 2008-2015 period. Carlos Beltran signed a seven-year, $119M contract with the New York Mets in January 2005. J.D. Drew signed a five-year, $55M deal that same month. He opted out and agreed to a new five-year, $70M offer from the Boston Red Sox this week. Using Drew's increase as an indication of wage inflation, one could argue that salaries have grown 27% since Beltran inked his contract with the Mets.
In other words, Carlos would now be worth about $21.5M per year. If we assume that Wells is not quite at Beltran's level, we can back that figure off a bit and come up with $20M. The fact that Alfonso Soriano signed an 8/$136M contract with the Chicago Cubs this offseason also suggests to me that Wells won't be far off that $20M mark for a similar number of years.
OK, so who would you rather have - Wells for an average annual salary of $20M or Baldelli for $6M? The difference in pay alone should allow the team with Baldelli (rather than Wells) to acquire another premium player.
Let's take a look at how Baldelli compared to Wells last year.
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG OPS Baldelli 92 364 59 110 24 6 16 57 14 70 10 1 .302 .339 .533 .872 Wells 154 611 91 185 40 5 32 106 54 90 17 4 .303 .357 .542 .899
Wells had superior counting stats because he played in 62 more games. However, Baldelli's rate stats are nearly the same. Wells' home ballpark is slightly more friendly for RHB than Baldelli's. According to The Bill James Handbook, Rogers Centre played to a park index for RHB of 101 AVG and 131 HR in 2006, whereas Tropicana Field played to a 102 and 119, respectively.
If we dig down a bit deeper and compare their performances on the road, one can't help but come to the conclusion that Baldelli may be every bit as good as Wells. Both center fielders call the AL East their home so the level of competition has been essentially the same. Batters hit .254/.330/.404 vs. the pitchers Baldelli faced and .257/.338/.410 vs. the pitchers Wells faced last year.
2006 Road Stats
AVG OBP SLG Baldelli .298 .323 .534 Wells .276 .340 .422
Career Road Stats
AVG OBP SLG Baldelli .286 .313 .467 Wells .276 .323 .455
This analysis may be moot if not for the fact that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays seem open to the idea of trading Baldelli. TB has a surplus of young outfielders, including Carl Crawford, Elijah Dukes, B.J. Upton, and Delmon Young. Last time I checked, teams only need three starting outfielders. Put Crawford in LF, Young in RF, and one of Baldelli, Dukes, or Upton in CF. That means two of the latter three could conceivably be traded for much-needed pitching help.
Tampa Bay will certainly require equal value in return for a player such as Baldelli. Although signing Wells as a free agent will only cost a first or second round draft pick, the winning team will need to outbid all the others - not something that can be counted upon. But the reality is that Wells will cost a lot more than a draft choice. About 160 million more dollars than just a draft pick.
You can have Wells. I'll take Baldelli.