What was Tony Reagins thinking? Buried beneath the hustle and bustle of last week’s NFL showdowns was perhaps the most lopsided trade of baseball’s new millennium. The trade saw the Blue Jays’ Vernon Wells (complete with four-year, $86 million commitment) sent to the L.A. Angels in exchange for catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera. No matter how I spin it, the move continues to flummox me. What in the world was going through the mind of L.A.’s general manager (Reagins) when he signed up for this?
The deal centers on the burdensome contract of Wells, the former all-star center fielder. Back in 2006, Wells parlayed an excellent season with the Jays into a mammoth seven-year, $126 million contract. At the time, Wells had established himself as an all-around stud — a power-hitting center fielder who played Gold Glove defense. While pundits heralded the contract as a bit risky, most saw nothing but upside in the budding star.
That’s when things began to fall apart. After hitting .303 with 32 home runs in 2006, Wells struggled at the plate and hit just .245 with 16 homers the following year. Despite a slight offensive resurgence in 2010, Wells’ numbers have remained a far cry from his pre-2007 production. Perhaps more troubling, his defense has eroded as well: After saving his team 7.1 runs in the outfield in 2006, he cost them a whopping 12.9 and 16.6 runs in 2008 and 2009, according to Fangraphs.com. At 32 years old, Wells now owns what many thought was the most untradeable contract in baseball — four years and $86 million remaining for an aging center fielder whose struggles at the plate are compounded by a defensive decline. Fangraphs estimates that Wells was worth just $6.1 million in 2007, $6.6 million in 2008 and $0.1 million in 2009.
And yet, by some miracle, Toronto General Manager Alex Anthopoulos managed to trade him to the Angels. The Angels, who missed out on all of this year’s marquee free agents, bit on the former star. They bit to the tune of $86 million over four years. When the baseball world heard about the deal, most pundits assumed that massive amounts of cash were heading from Toronto to L.A. in order to compensate for the burdensome contract. They were shocked to find that Toronto wasn’t contributing a single penny.
The move is a complete disaster for the Angels. After taking on the backloaded contract, L.A. finds itself handcuffed financially. With a payroll now hovering around $145 million (among the highest in the game), the team has placed itself out of the free agent market for years to come. In return, they get a player who was worth just $100,000 in 2009, despite playing a full season. Perhaps he’ll have resurgence in California. Anything can happen. To provide some reference, however, L.A. will be paying more money per year to Vernon Wells than the Red Sox ended up paying to Carl Crawford.
It’s clear that the move was one of panic by the Angels’ GM. Reagins found himself with money to spend this offseason, but proceeded to miss on all of his targets — including Crawford and Rangers’ third baseman Adrian Beltre. Instead, fearing ending this offseason without a splash, Reagins traded for a big name from north of the border. What he got was a massive financial liability.
I can’t begin to express what a coup this is for Anthopoulos and the Jays. In the past two years, they’ve somehow managed to shed the massive and unproductive contracts of both Wells and fellow outfielder Alex Rios — two of the contracts many considered to be the most untradeable in the game. What’s more, the Jays actually received something in return. Outfielder Juan Rivera has demonstrated the ability to hit for power, and could be a bargain with a 2011 salary around $5 million. They’ve since flipped catcher Mike Napoli to the Rangers in exchange for fireballing reliever Frank Francisco, who could be another useful asset priced at only $4 million this year (he saved 25 games in 2009). More importantly, however, the Blue Jays now find themselves free of a massive financial constraint. You can bet they’ll be looking at big players in the free agent market in upcoming years, with more than enough cash to fill the void at center field.
Only time will tell what, exactly, comes of this trade. No matter how I view it, however, I can’t see this as anything but a colossal failure for the Angels and a tremendous boon for the Blue Jays. It’s a shame the Jays are gridlocked within the AL East or this might give the franchise a sliver of competitive hope. For the Angels, however, the road to the AL West crown just got much, much steeper.
John Ettinger is a junior in Saybrook College.