Sunday, August 10, 2008

Profile: Vernon Wells

In the winter after the 2006 season Vernon Wells signed a seven year, $126M extension to stay with the Toronto Blue Jays. He turned 28 years old that same winter and was a year away from free agency. He was seen as a perennial fringe MVP candidate that was just entering the prime of his career. In 2006 he put up a .303/.357/.542 line with 32 homeruns and 17 stolen bases and he seemed to be on the verge of superstardom.

Since Wells signed that contract, however, he has played a season and a half of very mediocre baseball. Now the Blue Jays are looking at paying Wells and average of $18M a year for the next five years and he may be the most overpaid player in baseball. So what happened?

The first thing to note is that there were signs before 2006 that Wells might not be the superstar that many thought him to be. He had an MVP caliber season in 2003, putting up a .317/.359/.550 line, which was very similar to his 2006 season, but his other three full major league seasons (2002, 2004 and 2005) weren't nearly as good. He failed to hit better than .275, get on base better than .337 and slug better than .472 in any of those three seasons. Also, prior to 2006 he had never had double digits in steals. So, while he had flashes of brilliance, he had not been consistent in his performance throughout his career.

In fact, this season when he's been healthy (he's only played in 64 games on the year), his numbers have been very comparable to the rest of his career. His line this season is .287/.339/.449, which is right in line with his 'down' years. But his 2007 was an unmitigated disaster. His line was .245/.304/.402 with 16 home runs in 149 games.

Perhaps Wells got lazy because he was making the big bucks, or maybe the put too much pressure on himself to live up to the contract - or maybe he was just unlucky. Wells' BABIP was .265, well below league average and also the lowest of his career and his line drive rate was also the lowest of his career, while his home run per fly ball rate plummeted to 7.3% (his career rate is 12.3%). Regardless of the reason, all of those numbers point to one thing: 2007 is the anamoly in Wells' career.

So, while injuries have hidden it to a certain extent this season because the accumalated numbers aren't there, Wells has returned to his career averages. I am sure that the Blue Jays had hoped that Wells would take a step forward in his 28 year-old season instead of having the worst season of his career, but the truth is that Wells has not performed too far below his established level since signing his big contract. The answer, then, to the question posed above, what happened to Vernon Wells, is: nothing. He hasn't performed like an $18M ballplayer, but there wasn't a real good reason to bet that he would improve to that level in the first place.

My guess is that Wells will get healthy and have a nice season, perhaps even back to the 2006 level, sometime before his contract expires. Given his career to this point it should be expected that he will perform at that level again. He will almost certainly never live up to the huge contract that he signed prior to 2007, but you can't blame Wells for the Blue Jays' willingness to overpay him.

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