First off, l just want to say how impressed I am with the content that has been on Lookout Landing the past couple weeks. I've been meaning to write this for a while, but all my LL internet time has gone to catching up on my reading. Color me pleased.
There has been much handwringing about what seems like the inevitability of Jason Bay, Mariner. It's true he's been utter crap the past couple years, and I'm not keen to really dive into all of that because, well, Jason Bay. It's bad. I'm pretty sure we all would rather avoid contemplating how disappointing Jason Bay's plate appearances will be, and how many plate appearances he'll likely get despite how bad the results will likely be. If I just made you think about it, I'm sorry. Your day will get better! It can't get much worse that visualizing ~400 PAs of ~.310 wOBA from a bad defensive outfielder! Sorry again. I'm not interested in looking at what we're probably stuck with. I want to look at and attempt to quantify what we're probably missing out on in Casper Wells, now and in the future.
Casper Wells seems to have earned himself the label of '4th Outfielder', which incidentally has earned itself the label of 'Most Used Prospect Label'. He's never gotten very many plate appearances as a Major Leaguer, with last year's 316 being the most ever in a single season. In fact, his entire ML career amounts to basically one full season (656 plate appearances), so coming into the year I personally was hoping we'd get to see what he could do with full year starting. It also means that it would be damn near impossible to estimate his true talent level. But let's do it anyway!
This is Casper's skillset at the plate: He's got some pop (a .200 ISO wouldn't be surprising from him), he strikes out a lot (a K rate of over 25% is likely), and he walks some (under 8% on his career isn't exactly world beating, but it's okay). He hasn't been unlucky with batted balls in any particular year, as last year's .282 mark was the lowest he'd seen as a major leaguer. Other than that, we really can't say much, and even saying those things sets off SSS alarms. We can say that he's not likely to improve his skills all that much moving forward, as he's already in his physical peak at age 28, but no other factoids are solid enough to mention. To estimate his true talent level, I will use exactly none of that information and fully defer to people smarter than me in saying Casper Wells is a true talent .320 wOBA hitter (that's average of Steamer, Oliver, Bill James, and ZiPS projections for 2013 with a 3 point boost for optimism). Given that and his probably slightly better than average defense, we're probably looking at a 2 WAR player in his prime. Not super great, but probably better than Broken Down Bay to the tune of a win or so. Given that neither of them is making much money (for major league ballers), a Wells likely gives his team some surplus value over a Bay.
The thing is though, 2 WAR isn't super hard to replace. Last year, 66 outfielders who got at least 100PA passed 2 WAR. The year before, 58 bested 2 WAR. The year before that, 57. While it's clear that 2 WAR outfielders don't grow on trees, they aren't rare either. It's also worth noting that if you look at only people who qualified for the batting title, 2 WAR is much closer to the bottom than the top of the list. In 2012, the 47th best qualified outfielder (Chris Davis of the .352 wOBA) posted 2.1 fWAR. The worst qualified outfield outfielder was 10 spots lower at -1.3 fWAR (Brennan Bosch, who had a .288 wOBA and was only 5 runs below average on defense). My rough estimation of Wells with the bat puts him right between these two. Judging solely on his bat, Casper Wells is exactly halfway between decent and atrocious. It's kind of surprising how close to the bottom of the full-timers fWAR list Casper would likely be, given lots of playing time. The conclusion I'm drawing is that teams don't give players like Wells much playing time. My theory is that players like Wells are easy to replace, often at low prices. Let's test that by looking at the Mariners other options. I'm not talking Bay, I'm talking Ibanez, Chavez and Thames:
Endy Chavez's projections really aren't pretty, but back in 2011, he produced about what we might hope for from Casper. A .326 wOBA with above average defense, leading to 1.5 fWAR in 274 PAs. He was not resigned after the season, and instead went to Baltimore for 1.5 mil.
Eric Thames was pretty good with the bat in 2011, hitting for a .334 wOBA in part-time duty as a 24 year old. His fielding wasn't good, bringing him down a bit, but still the overall production is about what we'd get from Wells in part time duty. The next year he was traded for a Delabar-shaped peanut and proceeded to strike out a ton (30% which is what we might get from Wells this year if things go bad) and suck. He was never considered a real option for the ML roster out of spring training.
Raul Ibanez rode an awful BABIP (.243) to offensive production that is actually better than what we should probably expect from Wells with a normal BABIP (.325 wOBA). He had a slightly postive UZR (proof that partial season defensive metrics have huge error bars. Crazy!) and managed 1.1 WAR. After the season he signed on with the Mariners for a mere $2.75 mil (he's a veteran wow gee whiz guys what a bargain!).
Eh, that little thought exercise could have been more powerful. The point is, it doesn't seem too hard to put together a pile of possible Wells-equivalents. What's the likelyhood that Casper by himself outproduces the optimal combination of those players next year? What about the best of the next pile the year after? By how much? I'm not going to just throw numbers out there, because that's all I can really do, but I think that the Mariners at least see Casper Wells as easily replaceable. And I'm not going to say they're wrong about that. Does Wells have advantages over these other players? You bet! He's younger (and therefore more likely to be healthy) than Ibanez and Chavez, and it seems as though he can handle center field unlike Ibanez and Thames. Does this make him valuable? Yep, but maybe not as much as I used to think.
It seems to me that Casper is probably what he is going to be at this point in his career, and that is someone who is hovering on the edge of being a pretty valuable major league player. I'd like to see him get a shot to show that this valuation is wrong, but given that the Mariners don't look super keen to do that, I can't be too upset. While he creates some surplus value now, it's not a whole lot and that won't be the case as he declines with age and enters arbitration. There's lots of guys that on the verge of being as valuable as Casper, and year-in, year-out, I don't really doubt Mariners' ability to replace that production using guys like Casper (or Endy or Raul) on the cheap.