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January 22, 2011

Vernon Wells Traded To the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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The Toronto Blue Jays have traded away the most cumbersome contract in the history of Major League Baseball. On Friday Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos traded center fielder Vernon Wells to the Angels for catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera. Many Jays fans are dancing in the streets celebrating the fact that Vernon won’t be owed 86 million dollars over the next four years. It certainly gives the Jays some financial flexibility going forward but in reality is it a good thing?

The Jays have now dumped two star outfielders in two consecutive years. They gave away Alex Rios for literally nothing last year and he had a breakout season for the White Sox. I expect Vernon to thrive on the Angels where he won’t be the only offensive threat in the lineup. Meanwhile, after overachieving last year and surprising many critics, the Jays are now poised to take a large step backwards. This off season they have traded away their opening day starter Shaun Marcum, and now their clubhouse leader and long time center fielder Vernon Wells. They also lost reliever Scott Downs and catcher John Buck to free agency They have replaced those players with Juan Rivera, Mike Napoli, Octavio Dotel and John Rauch.

At least they got something for Vernon Wells. Mike Napoli is a decent defensive catcher, and has some pop in his bat. He can hit home runs and drive in RBIs, but is that something the Jays need? The Jays already have a team full of guys who can hit the long ball, but can’t sustain a batting average over 260 for the course of the season. Juan Rivera is a lifetime 280 hitter which is exactly what the Jays need, but he is coming off a poor season where he hit well below his career averages. He is definitely not a long term replacement for Wells. The part that confuses me is that this move was inconsistent with Anthopoulos’ other moves. He typically gets picks or prospects and builds for the future. These two players are not likely going to be around when the Jays are actually competitive down the road.

Now I am not an expert, but I’d rather be going into the season with Wells, Buck, Marcum, and Downs than Napoli, Rivera, Dotel and Rauch. It is clear that Alex Anthopoulos has a plan to build for the future. He has made moves that show he is building a team that will hope to contend in about 5 years. The problem is the present. The way it is going, Toronto may not have a baseball team in 5 years. Last years average attendance was 10,500. The Jays need about 25,000 fans a game in the Rogers Center to make ends meet. With a worse roster going into the season and no superstars in the lineup, how are the Jays going to draw fans? Toronto loves a winner, and in the competitive AL East, the Jays clearly don’t have the talent to contend right now.

They do have some players with upside. Jose Bautista had a monster year last year and could be the next big thing since sliced bread. Many people point to the Vernon Wells trade as a catalyst that will enable Anthopoulos to lock up 2010 Home Run King Bautista to a long term contract. Is that a good thing? People in the media were ripping on Vernon Wells for underachieving and getting paid a fortune. Wells quietly came to work every day, played through injury, was great in the community and never was a cancer in the clubhouse. He was a gold glove center fielder, and definitely had some solid offensive seasons. He wasn’t worth the money he was earning, but he wasn’t hurting the franchise either with clubhouse conflict or off field drama.

Now enter Jose Bautista. A journeyman who never had a starting job in the MLB up until last season. Bautista showed everyone what he was made of, leading the league in home runs and having 120+ runs batted in, 100+ walks, 100+ runs scored and decent slugging, on base and batting averages. He also displayed a rocket arm and played solid defense. Many ignorant fans are begging Anthopoulos to lock him up to a big contract to prevent him from going to a rival. Doesn’t this situation sound familiar? Vernon Wells had one incredible season and was rewarded with a massive contract by J.P. Ricciardi. Toronto fans have been ruing that day ever since. Bautista could get long term financial stability and just cruise through the rest of his career with average MLB stats. I wouldn’t give him a big contract after one big year. Lets see some consistency first.

So what have the Jays effectively done by trading away Vernon? They have saved Rogers 86 million dollars over 4 years. Great. I am sure Rogers wasn’t sleeping at night spending all of that money on an overachieving baseball team that can barely generate fans. Ditching another star player will surely bring more people into the building. In my opinion, the reality is grim. Vernon Wells wasn’t a superstar, but the Jays will not and have not replaced him. This will put more pressure on Jose Bautista (as if there wasn’t already enough) and he will likely falter as the Jays newest savior and potential franchise player.

Optimistic fans are hoping that all of the prospects Anthopoulos has brought in will bloom at the same time and in 5 years the Jays will be a World Series contender. Names like Gose, Lawrie, Drabek, D’Arnaud, Cecil and Morrow will become superstars, and when they are all peaking, Anthopoulos will bring in a couple of veteran superstars to bolster the team and really push to win it all.

I hate to be negative, but I don’t think that everything is going to pan out that way. Some of those prospects will become every day major leaguers, some will become utility guys who nobody hears from again. If the Jays get competitive, and need a couple of stars to help bolster the lineup, good luck to Anthopoulos to lure stars to Canada. There is a reason that there are no superstars on any other Toronto teams. People do not want to play here. The Jays can always use the old adage, if you can’t lure them, over pay them, but what has that achieved? We had an overpaid star player named Vernon Wells, and now that he’s gone everyone seems to be happy. In a couple of years when the Jays are forced to over pay a guy who will likely be worse than Wells, people will be saying “we sure could use Vernon Wells’ steady glove and bat right about now”. Only time will tell. For now Rogers can keep overcharging for cell phone, internet and television use and smile at the 86 million dollars he’s saved.

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