Prospect Retrospective: Vernon Wells
Los Angeles Angels outfielder Vernon Wells announced his pending retirement in February. He'll play out the string on his contract following today's trade from the Angels to the Yankees, then go into the sunset after the 2014 season to spend more time with his family. Wells has become the personification of bad contracts and terrible trades, making it too easy to forget how good he was at his peak. Let's take a look at his career and what he was like as a prospect.
Wells was highly-regarded as a high school athlete in Arlington, Texas. He had a University of Texas scholarship to play baseball and football in college, but passed that up when the Toronto Blue Jays made him the fifth-overall pick in the 1997 draft, giving him a $1,600,000 bonus. His tools were very impressive but there were mixed reports about his level of polish, and some concern that he might be a slight overdraft.
He put those concerns to rest with an outstanding pro debut against older competition in the New York-Penn League: he hit .307/.377/.504 with 30 walks and 44 strikeouts in 264 at-bats for St. Catherine's. I didn't give grades to just-drafted players way back then, but I did note in my 1997 book that it looked like "the selection of Wells was justified." I'd give a similar prospect with that draft spot, strong overall tools, and a great debut at least a B+ and probably an A- these days.
Moved up to Low-A Hagerstown for 1998, he held his own and hit .285/.348/.426 with 11 homers, 35 doubles, 13 steals, 49 walks, and 84 strikeouts in 509 at-bats. He was named the ninth-best prospect in the Sally League by Baseball America. The main worry was a drop in his home run output, but the tools were strong and overall he performed well. I gave him a Grade B in my 1999 book, which in retrospect seems a notch too low. Nowadays he'd be a B+. I wrote that "I think he'll be a very good player and his grade will go way up if he has a breakout season."
He broke out.
Wells started 1999 with High-A Dunedin in the Florida State League, blasting FSL pitching with a .343/.403/.543 line in 70 games. Promoted to Double-A at mid-season, he remained hot with a .340/.400/.519 line in 26 games, then hit .310/.357/.481 in 33 Triple-A contests. He stole 25 bases, controlled the strike zone, hit for power, and garnered strong defensive reviews. The Jays promoted him to the majors for September and he didn't embarrass himself with a .261/.293/.352 line in 24 games, not bad for a 20-year-old who began the season in A-ball.
I gave him a straight Grade A entering 2000, ranking him as the Number Four prospect in baseball and writing that "every indicator is green for future stardom."
2000 was different. He didn't make the big league team in spring training, went down to Syracuse and played very poorly in April, May, and June. Rumors said he was sulking, although the Blue Jays denied this. Other reports said he was simply pressing too much. He started hitting again in July and finished with a .243/.313/.432 line with 16 homers and 23 steals, with a league-average OPS. This got him knocked down to the Number 19 spot on my prospect list and a Grade B+, though I advised people not to give up.
Sent back to Syracuse again in 2001, Wells hit .281/.333/.453 in 107 games, enough to earn his way back into the Blue Jays lineup. He performed well in 30 games for Toronto, hitting .312/.350/.427, exceeding rookie qualifications and earning a spot in the lineup for 2002.
His age 23 season was fair: .275/.305/.457 with 23 homers, 100 RBI, not a good OBP but with enough power to remain viable. His WAR was just 1.4, but he was considered one of the better young players in the game. He took a big step forward in 2003, hitting .317/.359/.550 with 33 homers and a 3.8 WAR plus an All-Star nod. This was his peak as an offensive player, with a 132 OPS+.
Wells was particularly excellent in 2006, hitting .303/.357/.542 with 32 homers, another All-Star nod, and superior outfield defense that jumped his WAR up to 5.8. He won a Gold Glove (his third) and was considered the face of the franchise. He signed a huge backloaded contract.
But it was downhill after that. His plate discipline began to slip. His defense deteriorated. He hit well in 2008 (OPS+123) and 2010 (OPS+125), but was weak in '07 and '09. The Blue Jays somehow convinced the Angels to take him for 2011, right when the biggest backload of the contract was due to hit. You know the rest of the story.
For all the disappointments of recent years, it is easy to forget that Wells was really quite good at his peak. His career line of .273/.321/.467, OPS+ 106, wRC+ 104 is the result of wild swings between good years and bad ones, but his peak seasons have helped him carry forward a career WAR of 26.7, hardly stunning but also hardly a bad player.
Among career center fielders, this puts him in a career range with very solid guys like Mickey Rivers (27.0), Stan Spence (26.8), Matty Alou (26.6), and Rondell White (26.2), none of them superstars but all guys who were very strong players at their peaks. His Sim Score list brings up guys like George Bell, Ruben Sierra, George Hendrick, and Chet Lemon.
As a prospect, Wells showed superior tools and was a tremendous performer at his best, though he also had some rough patches. . .pretty much just like his major league career. While he is not one of the greats of his generation, Wells was very valuable at his peak. It isn't his fault that the Blue Jays gave him a giant contract.