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Analyzing the Angels/Blue Jays Vernon Wells Trade

Well, this is weird.

It seems like the vast majority of trades feature one team trading future assets (young players) to a struggling team in exchange for a veteran stalwart designed to help them contend immediately.

Rarely, however, do we see significant prospect-for-prospect or veteran-for-veteran deals. The few instances where established players are traded for each other usually involve teams swapping headaches like Milton Bradley and Carlos Silva.

But no, this is different. The Angels have traded productive catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera for Blue Jays star Vernon Wells and his massively over-expensive contract.

Rarely is a deal so straightforward. We don’t have to measure present value against future value here; it’s a strictly apples-to-apples comparison. And yet, deals like this are so rare that I can’t help but feel somewhat wary of analyzing this, as if I’m always missing some hidden subtext.

So bear with me as I break this down.

Napoli is 29, while Wells and Rivera are both 32. With those ages involved here, nobody in the deal should be expected to get better. Wells and Rivera are both 32-year-old outfielders, so they can be expected to decline at roughly similar rates from their current selves; Napoli could decline at a similar pace, even though he’s three years younger, due to the demands of his position.

So, that’s a convenient starting point.

Wells is signed for four years and a ridiculous $92 million from this point forward. The Jays are covering all of $5 million, leaving LA on the hook for a still-egregious $87 million.

Napoli and Rivera, on the other hand, are free agents after this year. Depending on how Napoli’s arbitration case resolves, they’ll combine to make a bit over $10 million, roughly half of Wells’ salary, for one year.

At its most basic, that’s what this deal is: the Blue Jays got rid of a salary that they really couldn’t afford to drag along if they are to have any hope of competing in their division. The Angels, after laying low all offseason, had money to spend and needed to find a player to keep up with Texas and Oakland.

It’s a poor bet for LA, as far as I’m concerned. Wells has basically altered good and bad years at the plate since 2005, performing well in even-numbered years and poorly in odd-numbered ones. Even in 2001-04, he had two excellent offensive years and two relatively mediocre ones. He’s signed from age 33-36, so if he keeps up said pattern, he’ll put together two good years in the four, and his advancing age means he may not even reach his previous heights. He’s also rated well-below-average defensively for the past three years in center field, and isn’t likely to improve at his age.

That said, the one counter-argument is that Wells is coming off a good year (.273/.331/.515 with 31 homers and only 84 strikeouts). His history of extreme inconsistency, however, gives all sorts of pause to the idea that he’s somehow turned a corner. Maybe he has, but it’s far from a safe bet, particularly with this sort of money.

And speaking of the money, four repeats of 2010 would just barely justify Wells’ contract.

Committing a good portion of the payroll to Wells isn’t a smart decision, even for a big-market team–there’s too much risk involved. If LA had their own terrible contract to trade for it, that might make sense, but Napoli and Rivera hardly qualify–you’d think if they performed in 2011, they could fetch something before the trade deadline.

It’s ridiculous that Napoli was constantly fighting the terrible Jeff Mathis for playing time in LA, but I’d guess Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos understands his value and the Jays will get more out of him than the Angels did. Catchers with a career .251/.346/.485 slugging are a rare breed, and while Napoli doesn’t have a strong defensive reputation, the man is easily a starting-quality MLB catcher. Since the Angels refused to play him behind the plate much (he never started more than 84 games at catcher in a season), he’s also a bit fresher than most longtime MLB catchers, and isn’t much of a risk for a downturn at this point in his career. The Angels do have Hank Conger waiting in the wings, so if they wisely give him the job over Mathis, they shouldn’t be too hurt by Napoli’s departure. But if Mathis and his sub-.500 OPS are regularly in the lineup again, things could get ugly.

Like Wells, Rivera’s been inconsistent over his career. He hit well in 2004, 2006, and 2009, but struggled, particularly in the OBP department, in most other years. Still, his .252/.312/.409 line in 2010 doesn’t look much different than, say, Wells’ 2009 (.260/.311/.400). Conversely, Rivera’s 2009 (.287/.332/.478) isn’t too far removed from Wells 2010 (.273/.331/.515). Rivera’s limited to the corner outfield spots defensively, but does decent work there, so the defensive gap isn’t too great either.

Wells is clearly the superior player–he’s had more good seasons, his highs have been higher, and he’s had a good season more recently–but two years ago, Rivera put up much better numbers, and there’s probably a 15-25% chance that could happen again this year, given the weird career paths of both players. It’s certainly well within the realm of possibility that Wells could be only a moderate upgrade on Rivera.

All the risk in this deal falls on the Angels, as they’re the ones making the long-term monetary commitment, and an extremely hefty one at that. No matter where the careers of the three players go in 2011, the Blue Jays will be fine, because they just freed up nearly $100 million without definitively giving up a huge amount of talent. The Angels, on the other hand, better hope Wells can put up consecutive good seasons for the first time in his career…four straight times.

If Wells stays good, it’s a brilliant move–the Angels could afford him and they didn’t give up anything they can’t replace fairly easily (unless Mike Scioscia keeps running his pet Mathis out there half the time). But there’s a very high chance Wells will not be good for the duration of his contract, and if he flails again, there won’t be any trading him.

Tags: Juan Rivera LA Angels Mike Napoli Toronto Blue Jays Vernon Wells

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