Vernon Wells: Human Xanax


A panic move adds power but fails to address (and perhaps exacerbates) deeper problems.

Panic is rarely pretty. If you find yourself suffering a panic attack and have a choice between taking Xanax or Vernon Wells, take the Xanax. Neither will deal with the underlying problem, but at least the former will mask the symptoms for a while.

As we await word that the deal between the Yankees and the Angels will be completed, we are left to wonder what the heck the former's ownership was thinking over the winter when they abruptly turned off the cash spigots just as an aging team was facing the defection of key players through free agency. Yahoo's Jeff Passan quotes a Yankees official: "I just wonder where this money was in December." As our own Rob Neyer notes, it's a heck of a question:

While the Yankees aren't on the hook for all of the $42 million Wells has coming to him over these next couple of seasons, the early word is that they're going to pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $12-$14 million. Which does lead to a terribly obvious question ... If they had that kind of money to spend, why not spend it a few months ago when it might have gotten them a good player?

Wells has always been a troublingly inconsistent player. Injuries have been a problem in recent seasons, but pain doesn't wholly account for the way he was capable of swinging from a .300 hitter to .245 and back in consecutive seasons. Even by that standard, the last two seasons have been especially painful, with Wells posting on-base percentages of .248 and .279 in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The former was the lowest OBP posted by an outfielder in a 500-plate appearance season since 1904. Wells did hit 25 home runs that year, lessening the pain without wholly alleviating it.

The decline of the Yankees' power potential has been widely noted. Aided by their very generous home park, last year's Yankees led the American League with 245 round-trippers. Since then, Russell Martin (21 home runs), Raul Ibanez (19), Nick Swisher (24), Eric Chavez (16), and Andruw Jones (14) have left town, replaced by players who are unlikely to match their power production. In addition, Curtis Granderson (43), Mark Teixeira (24), and Alex Rodriguez (18) have suffered injuries with lengthy recovery times. Derek Jeter (15) too will start the season on the disabled list.

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Despite missing nearly 60 games last year due to thumb surgery, Wells retained roughly the same home run rate of the previous two seasons, hitting one out roughly every 20 at-bats. As a right-handed pull hitter, he won't reap the full benefit of Yankee Stadium's short right-field line and jet stream, but he should still benefit from escaping a difficult hitting environment in Anaheim. Yankee Stadium is roughly neutral for right-handed home runs, whereas Wells' old home park was one of the harder home-run environments for right-handers on the circuit. Wells should help make a small dent in the team's home run deficit versus 2012.

What has gone almost uncommented upon amidst talk of a power outage has been a concurrent decline in the team's on-base potential. The Yankees were second in the league in walks drawn last year, trailing the Rays 571-565. Of the team's most patient regulars last year, Swisher (with the team-leading walk percentage) and Martin are gone and Granderson, Teixeira, and Rodriguez will miss extended time. The signing of Kevin Youkilis, the so-called Greek God of Walks, Travis Hafner, and the return of Brett Gardner will help ameliorate the shortfall, but not entirely given the free-swinging tendencies of players like Ichiro Suzuki, Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Eduardo Nunez, Juan Rivera, and the catching tandem of Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart. Having walked in only about five percent of his plate appearances over the last two seasons, Wells will exacerbate this problem even as he attacks the team's power gap. In short, not only will the Yankees hit fewer home runs this season, they will have fewer runners on base when they do hit them.

Whether in response to the exigencies of injury or just through poor planning, the number of impatient hitters who will receive playing time this season is depressing to see. Long before Moneyball, an emphasis on patience was one of the key insights by former general manager Gene Michael that allowed him to rebuild the club from its 1989-1992 nadir. The 67-95 1990 team, which featured walk-averse hackers like Mel Hall and Oscar Azocar, had six players with 200 or more plate appearances post a sub-.300 OBP. As a whole, the team drew just 427 walks, last in the American League, and posted one of the worst team OBPs in club history, an even .300.

Otto Greule Jr

The 2013 Yankees won't be nearly that bad, but players like Wells and Boesch bring to mind outfielders like Hall and Gary Ward-in other words, the kind of limited, "Why are they here, exactly?" players the club had foresworn since those dark days. The Ward-Wells analogy is especially poignant given that Ward's 569-plate appearance .248/.291/.384 season of 1987 was one of the most pathetic performances by an outfielder in the history of a club better known for pasture men like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio (more recent competition includes Rondell White's 2002 and Melky Cabrera's 2008). Wells' .230/.279/.403 of last year looks a lot like Ward's season, as well as two from the last of the also-ran years, Matt Nokes' .224/.293/.424 and Charlie Hayes' .257/.297/.409, both of 1992.

I was a young Yankees fan back in those days. Charlie Hayes was perhaps of my least-favorite players even before he came to New York. I watched a lot of Phillies games as well, and Hayes seemed to me to be the ultimate suicide weapon, a guy who neither hit for average, nor power, nor walked and whose reputation for good defense was exaggerated. Naturally, the Yankees went out and acquired him. This was very similar to an experience I had a few years earlier, when, having said to several of my friends, "Of everyone in this high school, I hope my sister never dates that guy." Naturally, she dated that guy for a year. Between the Yankees, Hayes, and that guy I learned a valuable lesson: be careful what you don't wish for.

With Wells' high salary -- even with the Angels chipping in the bulk of the $42 million still owed, Team Yankees will be picking up a not-insignificant $12-$14 million-- two-year roster obligation, recent injury history, and plummeting production, Wells would be on anyone's don't-wish list. That the Yankees, until recently the most fervid devotees of austerity economics this side of David Cameron, suddenly found him attractive speaks to the hole this team has found itself in both at the major- and minor-league levels -- the team has outfield prospects coming, but due to some exceedingly poor drafts at the end of the last decade, there is a gap in ready players exactly when they need them most.

That trio of top prospects -- Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott, and Mason Williams -- could be ready as soon as the end of this year or the beginning of next, and Wells will still be around to block them. In the meantime, the Yankees have compromised their future financial flexibility on a panic move -- and whereas Wells likely won't be much of an improvement on a Boesch-Francisco platoon in left field, Juan Rivera is still the likely Opening Day first baseman.

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