Is there any hope for Vernon Wells?

USA TODAY Sports

We all know Vernon has struggled for the last two and a half years. Is there any historical precedent to think that he will turn it around?

Vernon Wells has had an odd career. Drafted 5th overall in the 1997 draft by the Toronto Blue Jays from Bowie HS in Arlington, Texas, he was instantly seen as a top prospect. Over the next four years, Baseball America would rank him the 52nd (1998), 69th (1999), 4th (2000) and 12th (2001) best prospect in baseball. He was a toolsy player with good power potential, above average speed, and excellent defense in center field. He was promoted aggressively by the Blue Jays, but it didn't seem to bother him. In 1999, his age 20 season, Wells started in High-A and made it all the way through Triple-A to the big leagues. His overall minor league line in 1999 was .334/.390/.522 with 18 HR, 24 SB in 29 attempts, an 8.6 BB% and a 12.8 K%. Easy to see why he was named the 4th best prospect in baseball. However, he did struggle in his major league debut, posting a .261/.293/.646, 64 OPS+ line - fairly close to his 2013 .224/.266/.372, 73 OPS+ line.

In 2000, he spent all but 2 PA in Triple-A Syracuse, and his production took a hit even though he was a year older and repeating the level. He finished the season with a .246/.313/.432 line, with 16 HR, 23 SB, a 8.7 BB% and a 16.0 K%. His extra base hits and stolen bases were similar, but his batting average took a hit, and his strikeouts went up by 25%. In 2001, again repeating Triple-A, he improved a bit, with a .281/.333/.453 line. However, while his K% dropped to 15.2%, his BB% also fell to 6.5%, and his stolen base success rate when from 85.2% in 2000 to 57.7% in 2001. That would be the last significant time he would spend in the minor leagues. He got 103 PA in Toronto in 2001, hitting .313/.350/.427 with a 102 OPS+.

Over the next nine years in Toronto, Wells would mix together excellent seasons (2003, 2006, 2008, 2010) with average (2004-2005) to mediocre (2007, 2009) seasons. At the end of the 2006 season, Wells was entering his age 28 season. From 2003 to 2006, Wells accumulated 18.4 rWAR, an average of 4.6 per season, and 16.5 fWAR, an average of 4.1 per season. He had at won three straight gold gloves in center field, been to two All-Star Games, and got as high as 8th in the MVP voting in 2003. He was one of the young stars of the game, and was payed handsomely for it, signing an eight-year, $126 million contract. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, he would only have one more season at the level they were expecting.

From 2007-2009, Wells accumulated only 4.3 rWAR, 2.9 fWAR, with a .265/.317/.426, 95 OPS+ line over 1792 PA. Luckily for the Blue Jays, the first three years of his deal were very cheap, costing just over $17.1 million. That meant there was $109 million he was owed over the next five years. In 2010, Wells bounced back with a .273/.331/.515, 125 OPS+, 4.2 rWAR and 3.7 fWAR. Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays GM, used this season to trade away the final $89+ million to the Angels, picking up $5 million of the remaining salary in return for Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli (who they traded to the Rangers for Frank Francisco). To get any players of value while ridding yourself of four years and $88 million makes this a great trade.

Over first two years with the Angels, Wells was not the 2010 version - he was a shell of his former self. Over those two years, he hit .222/.258/.409, with a 86 OPS+, 82 wRC+, 0.1 rWAR and a 0.6 fWAR. In 2011, his BB% dropped to 3.8% from a career rate of 6.8% prior to that, a 44% decrease. That number did bounce back in 2012 to 6.1%, albeit in limited plate appearances. Over the past two years, there have been 205 players with at least 750 PA. Wells was 179th in fWAR, and 185th in wRC+.

Given the fact that he has been one of the worst players in baseball over the past two years, and that he was still owed $42 million, you would think he would be one of the most untradeable players in baseball. And you would be wrong. The Yankees, having lost Nick Swisher to the Indians in free agency (go back 12 months and tell Yankees fans that was going to happen, there would've been ridicule and spit takes galore), and Granderson to a broken forearm due to an errant spring training pitch from JA Happ, were looking for some outfield help - the proven veteran kind. A deal was made between the Angels and Yankees, with the Yankees receiving Wells, $9.5 million in 2013, and $18.6 million in 2014. The Angels received Exicardo Cayones, who has yet to have any real success stateside as a corner outfielder with no power, and Kramer Sneed, a "Law & Order: Dr. Seuss" character drafted by the Yankees in the 32nd round in 2010 from Barton College in North Carolina. Cayones hasn't played yet in 2013, while Sneed is in High-A as a 24-year-old putting up an impressive 3.12 ERA, 23.4 K%, and a 3.2 K/BB ratio.

Wells was seen as a short-term stopgap, who could become a fourth outfielder/platoon partner with Ichiro Suzuki once Granderson came back, fulfilling the role Andruw Jones played the past two years.. Two things have made that difficult to do so far. First, when Granderson did come back, he only played eight games before breaking his pinky due to another errant pitch, this time by Tampa Bay's Cesar Ramos. Secondly, Wells destroyed the ball in April, becoming the best Yankee not named Robinson Cano. Over the first month, Wells hit .300/.366/.544,with 6 HR. He quickly began to cool down, and his OPS would drop below .900 on May 1st. By the end of May, he had a ..258/.306/.448 season line, with a 221/.250/.365 line in May. Since May 24th, he has had nine hits, over the course of 99 AB, or a 0.091 BA. So far in June, he has hit .107/.121/.107, with 6 hits, all singles, and 11 K to 1 BB.

It seems Girardi is intent on keeping Wells in the starting lineup, refusing to believe his radiant April carriage has turned into a rotting June pumpkin. So the question becomes, can Wells get better? Is there any hope for Vernon in 2013 and beyond?

Since integration in 1947, there have been 241 outfielders with at least 750 PA between their age 32 and 33 seasons. Wells is 217th out of those 241, with 0.6 fWAR. However, he gets a boost from his defense - looking at his bat only, he is 232nd out of 241 in wRC+. Needless to say, he has not been good. Other than Wells, 32 of these 241 players had less than 1.0 fWAR between their age 32 and 33 seasons. How did they do after their age 33 season?

Name

Age 32-33 fWAR

Post-33 Seasons

Post-33 fWAR

Al Martin

0.9

1

-0.5

Bobby Higginson

0.8

1

-0.6

Al Zarilla

0.8

1

-0.3

Al Cowens

0.8

1

-0.9

Steve Finley

0.8

9

17.9

Trot Nixon

0.8

1

0.0

Joe Rudi

0.8

2

-0.9

Gino Cimoli

0.7

2

-1.4

Joel Youngblood

0.5

4

0.4

Jose Cardenal

0.5

3

0.0

Michael Tucker

0.4

2

0.3

Garret Anderson

0.4

5

0.6

Gary Matthews Jr.

0.3

2

-1.2

Keith Moreland

0.3

2

-0.7

Emil Brown

0.2

1

0.0

Jim Eisenreich

0.2

6

8.0

Billy Hatcher

0.1

1

-0.1

Harvey Kuenn

0.1

2

-1.0

Chuck Knoblauch

0.0

0

0.0

Geronimo Berroa

0.0

2

-0.1

Dan Gladden

-0.3

2

1.4

Juan Rivera

-0.4

0

0.0

Danny Tartabull

-0.4

1

-0.1

Ralph Garr

-0.4

1

-0.4

Gorman Thomas

-0.5

2

0.5

Jeffrey Leonard

-0.5

1

-1.3

Paul Sorrento

-1.0

0

0.0

Del Ennis

-1.1

1

-0.8

Vince Coleman

-1.4

2

-0.5

Jim Piersall

-1.4

4

1.8

Marquis Grissom

-1.7

5

1.7

Jose Guillen

-2.6

1

0.6

These 32 players averaged two more seasons, and 0.7 more fWAR. However, the median fWAR is -0.05. Essentially, if you are a replacement-level outfielder in your age 32-33 seasons, you will probably last for two more seasons with in the big leagues at replacement-level play. Low and behold, Vernon has two more seasons under contract, and has hinted at retiring at the end of his contract. So far, in his age 34 season, Wells is exactly replacement-level at 0 fWAR. If he was a backup, or a minor-league callup, this would be fine. Unfortunately, he is costing the Yankees $11.5 million this year, which is what you would pay for league-average, 2.0 fWAR production. And there is still $2.4 million owed to him for next year.

History tells us, looking at the table above, that we will be paying for another season of replacement-level production. There were only five of the 32 players that had more than 0.7 fWAR, and only two that had at least 8.0 fWAR - Jim Eisenreich and Steve Finley. Wells' best-case scenario is Steve Finley, who lasted another nine seasons at 2 fWAR per season. Unfortunately, he has about a 3.1% chance of reaching that. He has a 68.8% chance of never creating any more fWAR in the big leagues.

So, is there hope for Vernon? If we are talking about being good enough to be a starter in the major leagues, I am leaning towards no. He could still be a good fourth outfielder/defensive replacement, especially on a team not in contention. Unfortunately, the Yankees are trying to contend, and are still determined to do so by starting Vernon Wells. So far, this hasn't hurt them, but it has not helped them either. There has been no one to replace him, either in a trade or through the minors. The Yankees top outfield prospects are still at least a year away, and more likely won't be ready until 2015. Their fringe outfield prospects in Triple-A have been injured (Ronnier Mustelier), ineffective (Melky Mesa), or unproductive in limited play (Thomas Neal).

Last night, Zoilo Almonte gave Yankees fans hope that someone can come in and be better than a replacement player for the team this year, going 3 for 4 with his first career home run. However, as soon as Granderson is back, I'd expect Zoilo to either go back to Scranton or to the bench. Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman seem content to keep Wells on the team, so when Grandy does come back, Wells will platoon with Ichiro. We can hope that he can still provide some value to the team, even if it isn't enough to justify what we are paying him, but in reality it looks like we can only hope that he can be a serviceable fourth outfielder through this year. Next year, with a much smaller salary paid by the Yankees, I would expect he has a much shorter leash with Cashman, and could be released mid-season if he struggles at all. Given the history of other outfielders who struggled in their age 32-33 seasons, it would seem there is very little hope for Vernon.

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