Saturday, January 22, 2011

Vernon Wells to the Angels

It's been a tough year for the Angels. After three consecutive NL West titles, and a trip to the 2009 ALCS, expectations were high - unfairly high, perhaps, considering the losses of Vladimir Guerrero, Chone Figgins, and John Lackey. Puttering along for the first two months in third place, they were dealt another blow on May 29th when Kendry Morales celebrated his game winning grand slam against the Mariners by breaking his leg in a celebration at home plate.

June went pretty well though. Hot streaks by Torii Hunter, Erick Aybar and Hideki Matsui, as well as the fairly weak interleague schedule, propelled the Halos to an 18-9 month, and the Angels sat only 3.5 games behind the Rangers on July 4th. Unfortunately, they wilted in the summer heat, with a 20-33 record in July and August, leaving the Angels out of the playoffs for only the third time in nine years. It was clear some changes needed to be made. The trade deadline deal for Dan Haren was a start, but their offense needed a boost - their .311 OBP was better than only the anemic Seattle Mariners. The Angels were considered front-runners for Carl Crawford. When Crawford spurned LA for Boston, the Angels seemed to be without a Plan B. Without an attractive free agent option, they were going to need to go the trade route in order to move forward.

One valuable chip the Angles had was C/1B Mike Napoli. Napoli's average defense and low batting averages made him unattractive to the Angels, and he could never find a spot playing every day, but to other teams who value his take n' rake approach, there was a lot to like. Most notably, Napoli has excellent power. Not excellent power "for a catcher," but legitimate top-notch power that would play at any position. His .502 sligging percentage over the past few years speaks for itself. For a frame of reference, .502 is the EXACT same slugging percentage that Jim Rice's supporters would quote when endorsing him for the HALL OF FAME. Napoli has done that over the last three years in a much tough place to hit than late 70's/early 80's Fenway Park. We're not trying to get Napoli into to the Hall of Fame here - just a consistent starting job. Given that, he has shown himself to be a player with very similar skills to a young Jorge Posada.

The Angels have the skills they like, though - most notably, athleticism. It's what led to them signing Gary Matthews Jr. and Torii Hunter to huge contracts in the 2006 and 2007 offseasons. The cynic in me would say that, unable to overpay an overrated outfielder to a contract this offseason, they went out and traded for one that another team had overpaid. However, while Matthews was a complete bust, that characterization is unfair to Hunter. While Hunter and his contract have been much maligned in the statistical community, I defended the move three years ago, and will defend it again has one that has been worthwhile for the Angels. Over the three years, Hunter has been about 11.7 wins above a replacement level. That may not be worth quite $18M, he has been one of the most productive CF in baseball over that span. If you're looking for reasons the Angels underachieved in 2010, don't blame Hunter.

Trading for Vernon Wells, though, gives them a worse version of the same player, making just as much money. Wells has a .275/.327/.466 line in his ages 29-31 seasons. What will he be in his 32-34 seasons? In addition, the move necessitates moving Hunter from CF to RF on a full-time basis, where his bat will not play as well. If Wells can replicate his very good 2010, where he had 78 extra-base hits, he will improve the Angels offense. If he reverts to 2009 though, or even splits the difference, they are going to be disappointed. That .275/.327/.466 seems like a pretty good starting point.

The reason this is a bad trade for the Angels, though, has little to do with what Vernon Wells may or may not do, and more to do with what the rest of the team can't do. The Angels had an OBP of .316 or lower at SIX of their nine positions last year: C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS and DH. They had slugging percentages under .400 at all of those except for 1B. Yes, the return of a healthy Kendry Morales will improve the production at 1B. But with the trade of Napoli, the Angels have handed the catching job, full-time, to Jeff Mathis again. For his career, Jeff Mathis has a .199/.265/.311 batting line. I know that the Scioscia puts an emphasis on defense at the catching position, and that Napoli wasn't his cup of tea. And I'm sure Mathis would make a nice backup, and will be a coach or manager one day. But Mathis makes the Molina brothers look like a trio of Mike Piazza by comparison. He's not just a bad hitter, he's an automatic out.

Even further , if we grant that the Angels don't care about offense at the position and will use catcher as an automatic out, and that they don't value Napoli's set of skills as much as other teams do, why trade him for one of the few positions on the field that they didn't need the help at? Money situation aside, the Angels are worse on paper today than they were yesterday. When you through in Wells' astronomical contract, this seems like an all-around bad move by the Angels.

The Blue Jays, on the other hand, have to be thrilled. They've gotten themselves out from under Wells contract, and have added a versatile power-hitter who can spell rookie J. P. Arencibia behind the plate two or three times a week, and spend the rest of the time as a 1B, DH and right handed hitting slugger off the bench. Adding in Juan Rivera on top of that - another low batting average player with power and versatility, not to mention a cannon arm - is just icing on the cake.

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