I Just Don't Get It

By this point, much of what ought to be said about the Vernon Wells trade has already been said in several places. The internet is a lot of things, but most of all, it's thorough. So I don't think I come offering a unique perspective. I just can't let this go by without saying something, because I can't remember the last time baseball left me so surprised. Edgar Renteria hit the World Series-winning home run off Cliff Lee, and I don't think that's even in the same universe.

For pretty much any baseball move, there exists a reasonable explanation. There was a reasonable explanation for the Nationals signing Jayson Werth. There was a reasonable explanation for the Mariners signing Ken Griffey Jr. There was a reasonable explanation for the Mariners acquiring Horacio Ramirez. You don't always agree with the explanation, but far more often than not, you can't deny the possibility that it might make sense. Moves like the Jose Vidro trade are few and far between.

I can't find a reasonable explanation for this one. I get that the Angels wanted to dump Juan Rivera. That's fine. I get that the Angels wanted to move Mike Napoli. That's less fine, but still acceptable. I get that the Angels wanted to make a big splash. And I'm convinced that there's something about Jeff Mathis that a lot of us don't get. Something that makes him a decent regular catcher. On that, I'm happy to defer to the experts.

But, Vernon Wells. The Angels can talk about Wells' power. Wells does have power. And the Angels can talk about Wells' defense. I can't find any shred of evidence that Vernon Wells has been even a passable defensive center fielder for years, but it's possible that there's something about him that our numbers don't pick up. The Angels clearly believe pretty strongly that Wells will be an asset in the field.

Yet, it's been no secret that the Blue Jays have been trying to dump Wells and his contract on somebody else since pretty much the day it was signed. Wells' contract has long been among the league's biggest albatrosses, and even Wells himself admitted in an interview that he isn't worth the money. What the Angels basically just did was dump Rivera and Napoli for nothing and sign a 32-year-old Wells to a four-year, $86 million contract. In what way could that possibly make sense?

Ultimately, this is just a matter of money. Wells is a moderately desirable player. He's posted a .793 OPS over the last three years, and he's not a complete embarrassment in the field. Had Wells been a free agent this winter, he certainly would've been able to find a multiyear contract. But he wouldn't have found 4/86. I doubt he would've found 4/43.

The Angels are by no means a small-market organization, but they effectively just dumped tens of millions of dollars in the trash. They could've looked ahead to having Scott Kazmir off the books in November. Gary Matthews Jr.'ll come off the books, too. And, certainly, they can still look ahead to that financial relief. But now November won't bring complete freedom from awful contracts, because Vernon Wells will still be getting paid twenty-one million dollars the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. The Angels did this to themselves on purpose.

It's a terrible idea. Based on our numbers, Vernon Wells is not a special player. If he's actually a fine defender, as the Angels believe, he still isn't close to worth it. And he's 32. It's important to understand that the broad and immediate internet reaction may lead the reader to believe that this is more damaging than it is. The Angels are prepared to run with payrolls in the ~$130 million range. They can handle Vernon Wells' contract, just as the Yankees can handle A.J. Burnett's contract, and as the Red Sox can handle John Lackey's contract. But this still clearly hurts. Wells will (presumably) limit the Angels' flexibility for the next four years without making a corresponding contribution on the field.

That Wells doesn't come close to being worth his contract is plainly evident to us, and it's plainly evident to baseball executives. It's been plainly evident to baseball executives for as long as the Blue Jays had been trying to give Wells away. And I think it's plainly evident to the Angels, too. When asked, Angels GM Tony Reagins described Wells' contract as "tolerable". Wells' contract is tolerable, in that, for the Angels, it's capable of being tolerated. But Reagins didn't say "good". He didn't say any synonym of "good", or anything that could be confused for a synonym of "good". The best he could come up with was "tolerable".

And still, he took it on, a few months prior to the beginning of a season in which his team will be far from a favorite. Even with Wells, the Angels look like the third-best team in the division. He isn't even a piece to put them over the top in the short-term, and he definitely doesn't look like a piece to put them over the top down the road.

The best explanation I can come up with is that the Angels were desperate. I do think the Angels see Wells as a better player than we do. I don't think the Angels would've given him $86 million as a free agent. I think Reagins was left feeling like he had to act so that his winter wouldn't be criticized as one of inaction. The Angels signed a couple relievers, but given the high-profile names to which they were connected, their offseason had been widely considered a great disappointment. So Reagins went out and made a splash. By getting Wells, Reagins will be able to tell people "hey, I tried," and he'll be able to tell that to himself, too, and while that's stupid, the only thing people hate more than a bad move is no move at all. I think people are still more mad at Pat Gillick for doing nothing in 2001 than for getting Al Martin in 2000. Al Martin didn't help, but at least he was new.

Desperation, of course, isn't a reasonable explanation. That it's the best I can come up with here is an indication as to how silly and irresponsible this move really is. I always try to give Major League front offices the benefit of the doubt, since they know a hell of a lot more than I ever will, but I just can't understand what else could've compelled the Angels to set ablaze more money than the Rays are prepared to pay their entire team.

The Angels are going to survive. Over the next four years, Vernon Wells might help. The team might be good. But, Friday night, the front office made what was an undeniably, indefensibly, exceptionally bad decision that's going to cost the team a lot of money for a pretty long time. This won't go down as the worst move ever made, but the obviousness of its lunacy is a rare thing, the rarity of which is hard to overstate.

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