It was like it just happened yesterday when I got a call from my best friend telling me the greatest Blue Jays news I had heard in a long time. 2 years ago, on January 21, 2011, Vernon Wells had been traded to the Los Angeles Angels for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera. I couldn’t believe it. Alex Anthopoulos had done what was previously unimaginable in trading one of the worst contracts in MLB history and getting value in return. It was the moment that solidified, in my mind, the notion that AA was our guy to get the Blue Jays back to the playoffs.
Let’s take a step back for a second and look at why Vernon Wells received so much money in the first place.
The year was 2006. John Gibbons was the manager entering his third season and was leading a team that had Reed Johnson as leadoff batter and Russ Adams at shortstop. Over the course of a tumultuous season that included public altercations with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly, the Blue Jays rose to an 87-75 record, good for 2nd in the AL East and the first time this had been accomplished for the team since the 1993 World Series team. This was in no small part thanks to the wonderful offensive and defensive output from Vernon Wells.
Over the course of 2006, Vernon Wells sported a .303/.357/.542 line, 32 HR’s, 106 RBI, 92 Runs, 17 Stolen Bases, .380 wOBA, 128 wRC+ and a UZR/150 of 8.2, garnering a 5.8 fWAR for the year. More importantly, he was entering the final year of his contract with the Blue Jays in 2007 after making a paltry $4.3M for his 2006 efforts. J.P. Ricciardi, the former Blue Jays GM, decided that his team should offer Vernon Wells a contract extension, as the team was very close to making the playoffs. Wells was awarded a 7 year/$126M backloaded contract extension worth an AAV of $18M. A move meant to signal the turning of the tide for Blue Jays fans ultimately become our bane.
2007 was Vernon Wells’ worst season as a starter with a .245/.304/.402 slash line and 16 HR’s over 149 games. After suffering a shoulder injury during the season, his defense would never recover to its previous Gold Glove caliber. Over 2008-2009 Vernon Wells was last and second last respectively in UZR/150 out of all centre fielders with 850+ innings. His offensive numbers declined down to his earlier years. It was only in 2010 (in Alex Anthopoulos’ first regular season) that Vernon Wells showed promise of a return to grace, sporting 31 HR’s and a .515 Slugging Percentage. However, at that point he was earning $21M (including signing bonuses) and still maintained defense worse than league average. His contract was eating up monetary flexibility that would have restricted our new GM’s ability to rebrand and fix the team. And with a full no-trade clause, it seemed nigh impossible that a trade would ever get accomplished.
Until that fateful afternoon.
Looking back at Vernon Wells’ time with the Blue Jays prior to 2006, it looked like a good idea at the time. What Ricciardi did in offering a contract extension was a smart idea at the time, seeing as Wells sported 16.6 fWAR over the 4 previous seasons before the signing. The fault lied in the amount offered. Ricciardi was notorious for offering way too much money based on what a player was worth at the time of signing the contract. He had also offered Alex Rios a 7 year/$70M contract and waived him for nothing a year later. Giving Vernon Wells 5 years of $21-23M/year money despite never finishing higher than 8th in MVP voting was a move that made sense to nobody but our GM.
Fortunately, Alex Anthopoulos has ridden us of that contract and only had to pay $5M of the total contract. If he never pulled it off, we’d still be stuck with Vernon Wells and his albatross of a contract. In no way would AA be able to have the financial flexibility to pull off the trades with Miami and New York if we were still stuck paying $21M/year until 2014 on a bench player. It’s been only 2 years, but ever since that trade the Blue Jays have been on the slow incline up towards greatness. It’ll be interesting to see how the recent off-season acquisitions will be talked about in 2 years time.