Sunday, January 23, 2011

By David Saltzer - Senior Writer

It’s the not the move I expected from the Angels this offseason. It’s not the move I wanted the team to make this offseason. But I like the deal because it makes the Angels a better team for 2011 and beyond.

I get the concern about the contract. It’s the biggest contract in Angels’ history. It’s back-loaded, and apparently no money is coming back to the Angels. But, even as critical as I have been about this offseason (with most of the criticism directed at how the Angels did their business, not the business that they did), I would have to say that this is a good deal for three reasons.

Why I Like This Deal #1: Improved Outfield Defense

Here are three numbers to think about: 0.79, 0.97, and 0.90. What do they mean? Those are the 2010 ground out (GO) to air out (AO) ratios for Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana. For those not too familiar with the stat, what that means is more than half the time Weaver, Haren, and Santana gave up a fly ball. The lower the number, the greater the likelihood that the pitcher will give up a fly ball to the outfield.

In 2010, the Angels’ outfield defense was so atrocious that they had to rush Peter Bourjos up to the Major Leagues. While his glove was more than ready for the Majors, his bat could have used some more time at Triple-A Salt Lake. But, with Abreu and Rivera unable to man the corners, and Torii Hunter needing to move out of center, the Angels had to bring the kid up.

Once the Angels brought Bourjos up, the starting pitching improved dramatically. That wasn’t an accident. Balls hit to the outfield that were falling into the gap were getting caught. Instead of extending innings for the opposition, the defense shortened them, allowing the starters to go deeper into games. This gave the bullpen more rest and allowed it to improve.

The Angels are a pitching-first team. As such, they always need to make every improvement to focus on their core strength: pitching. An outfield defense of Wells in left, Bourjos in center, and Hunter in right would be a vastly improved defense. In a short series and over the course of a season, the improved defense alone makes the Angels a better team.

Why I Like This Deal #2: Improved Offense

Up until this trade, the biggest question for the Angels going into 2011 had been the offense (or lack thereof). Adding Vernon Wells to the Angels improves their offense. In order to understand how Wells improves the offense, though, it’s necessary to dispel two myths about the 2011 team.

Mike Scioscia is the manager for the Angels and he believes that catching is a defense-first position. There’s no doubt that Napoli provides more offense than Mathis. But, there’s also no doubt amongst scouts or experts that Mathis is a better defensive catcher. Given those two paradigms, there’s no way that Napoli would get anywhere near the playing time in 2011 that he received in 2010. The only reason Napoli earned as much playing time as he did had entirely to do with the injury to Kendry Morales, not because of Napoli’s superior play.

Not only would Scioscia not play Napoli due to his defense, he also would not play Napoli because of his declining offense. In many ways, 2010 was Napoli’s worst year offensively. His BA, OB and SLG were way down and his strikeouts were up. In all likelihood, given the inferior defense, the decline in offense and the return of Morales, Mike Napoli was not going to get more than 50 starts in 2011. That alone would decrease his offensive contribution from 26 HRs in 2010 to about 9 in 2011. Even if the Angels suffered another serious injury in 2011 like they did in 2010, they would be more likely to give Trumbo a shot to earn the position rather than return to Napoli.

The second internet myth that needs to be dispelled is that the Angels could compete in 2011 without another 25+ HR threat. As welcome as Kendry’s bat will be to the lineup, adding him alone to the team would not be sufficient. Opposing pitchers could pitch around him and that would force Hunter and Abreu to press too much at the plate—like they did in 2010. When those two players pressed, they made too many costly mistakes. The Angels needed another potent bat in their lineup to spread the load more throughout their lineup. Adding Wells to their lineup, with his 78 extra-base hits in 2010, does exactly that.

Why I Like This Deal #3: Addition By Subtraction

Prior to the Wells trade, the 2011 Angels had a massive logjam at the DH position. Rivera, Abreu, and Napoli were all going to have to fight it out for playing time in the DH spot. By trading away two players who did not have a defensive position (Napoli and Rivera) to net a player who plays a position we needed (left field) is an improvement.

In 2010, all of the Angels’ DHs combined for an embarrassingly low .231/.316/.374 line with 17 HRs, 59 runs and 72 RBIs. By way of comparison, Bobby Abreu, the Angels’ most likely DH for 2011, produced a .255/.352/.435 line with 20 HRs, 88 runs and 78 RBIs—and that was a down year for him. Replacing the coterie of players who filled the DH spot in 2010 with Bobby Abreu will make the Angels a better team in 2011!

More importantly, having Vernon Wells in left field will be another big improvement to the offense. In 2010, Vernon Wells posted a .273/.331/.515 line with 31 HRs, 79 runs and 88 RBIs which easily surpassed Juan Rivera’s meager .252/.312/.409 line with 15 HRs, 53 runs and 52 RBIs.

Some Final Thoughts

I understand the concerns that this is a bad contract. But, looking at the deals handed out to free agents this year, they all were bad deals. All the major free agents signed for far too much money and for far too many years.

Unlike the GMJr contract, trading for Wells does not create as many problems down the road. It is only for 4 years. And, outside of years where he has been injured, Wells has produced solid numbers. It’s not a 1-season or 1-catch hyped up contract.

Subtracting the $11 million that the Blue Jays will pay Napoli and Rivera in 2011 from the $89 million owed to Wells, the deal amounts to a $78 million/4 year deal—or about $19.5 million/year. While that’s an unsightly number, it also reflects the present reality after this crazy offseason. Wells will cost less per year than Werth and Crawford but will do so for far fewer years even though he will post similar offensive numbers (albeit without Crawford’s stolen bases). On mega deals, it’s usually the number of years that’s the killer, not the amount of dollars. It’s far easier to suffer through a shorter contract, even for more money than it is to suffer through more years. If Wells were a free agent this year, he would have been able to get similar money and more years than he is currently getting based on how the market went.

Trading for Wells does not block Mike Trout. Even with all the hype surrounding Mike Trout, the Angels will not rush him through the organization. While it’s fun to imagine what he could do at age 20 in the Major Leagues, realistically, Trout is more than a year away from earning a full-time spot. At that point, the Angels could trade Abreu and move Hunter to the DH spot (assuming Bourjos is still with the team). Or, they could trade Bourjos to open up a spot for Trout. Either way, the Angels can and will address that problem when it raises itself.

This deal does not make the Angels older and less athletic as some pundits have speculated. Granted Mike Napoli is younger than Vernon Wells, but Juan Rivera is actually a few months older. More importantly, neither player is more athletic than Wells. Both Rivera and Napoli are known for clogging up the bases—the antithesis of Angels’ baseball. While Wells may not be capable of double-digit steals in 2011, he’s still more likely to go from first-to-third on a single and from first-to-home on a double than either of those players. That fits in better with Angels’ baseball than the station-to-station performances from Rivera and Napoli.

Finally, unlike the GMJr contract, this contract will not hamper the future team. By 2012, the Angels will have more money coming off the books. And, they will have the next wave of talent emerging from their Minor League system. As the younger, cheaper, and in some cases better talent emerges, the Angels will be able weather any potential downside to the contract while they ride the wave of the cheaper talent. They should be able to hold onto their key players (Weaver and Morales) while still fielding a contending team.

Over the course of this winter, I have been critical of the way the Angels have handled their obvious needs. While the trade for Wells does not completely temper the criticism, taken in isolation, this move does make the Angels a better team. It improves the defense, improves the offense, and will result in more wins.

As a fan, the bottom for me will always be about seeing a winning team on the field. While it may not have been the best deal for the Angels, or the move I wanted this offseason, for all of the above reasons, I believe that trading for Wells was a good deal.
Love to hear what you think!

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