Wednesday, November 18, 2009

SPORTS: Please Don't Trade Vernon Wells

How's that for a headline?

The worst Ricciardi in baseball, a Ricciardi being a really, really bad contract, Vernon Wells would be shipped out of town for a bag of bats, if most customers at the Rogers Centre had their way. They'd be happy to see him as an ex-Toronto Blue Jay. Mostly because he won't/can't earn that ridiculous stipend. No matter that he was actually underpaid last year and the year before, all anybody can moan about is 20-plus mill for each of the next four years.

And, in a way, they are right. He won't earn the money. But these are the days of ordinary outfielders earning eight figures anyway. And a healthy Vernon Wells is ordinary with gusts to above average. And that means you'd almost certainly throw out about $10M a year in value throwing him away for nothing. That's a fairly different situation than his former running mate, Alex Rios, who looks incapable of earning his big bucks in Chicago. Looks like Ricciardi did right giving away his last Ricciardi. Gawd that gets confusing. But I'd rather keep Wells for 30-50 cents on the dollar than zero cents on the dollar.

At any rate, The Toronto Blue Jays enter a new phase of the franchise's existence. Intelligent planning has returned. Scouts have been signed aplenty and kiddie GM Alex Anthopoulos is about to embark on a different direction. The old one, seeking to win 82 games and keep moaning about being in the same division as Boston and New York, is now thankfully history. So, do the Jays get serious around the automatic bank teller machines and stiffen up the budget to $120M or drop down to the $50M-$70M area and build for three years hence. As a newly-(re)minted Jays fan, I would MUCH prefer the former.

Let's see. We could re-up Scutaro and Barajas (and get Johnny Mac back too). I'd sign Adrian Beltre and let him give Roy Halladay Scott Rolen-like defence. And I'd ink Mike Cameron to play centre and shift Wells to right field. Which is where he'd be a lot closer to earning his money than as a fleet-footed flyhawk, which he really isn't anymore. Now, I'd finish off raising the payroll by $30M by trying to find a taker for Lyle Overbay (Atlanta for one of the pitchers?). That money would then go to former Montreal Expo Vladimir Guerrero. The new first baseman would be DH-extraordinaire Adam Lind. Leaving us with a starting lineup of C-Barajas 1B-Lind 2B-Hill SS-Scutaro 3B-Beltre LF-Snider CF-Cameron RF-Wells DH-Guerrero. The four subs would be Edwin Encarnacion, Johnny Mac, Jose Bautista (or maybe Joe Inglett) and a catcher, probably Raul Chavez. The pitching staff wouldn't have many changes, including keeping the Doc. There would have to be 12 pitchers, cuz outgoing manager Clarence Gaston goes through them like cocktail weenies at a party. It's a paper-thin roster with some injury risks (Wells and Guerrero chiefly), but it COULD score runs. If Lind has some sort of defensive awakening at first, the only sub-standard defender in the lot would be Snider. Barajas isn't any great shakes either, but Chavez is pretty good.

All it takes is for the kiddie corps of pitchers to grow up and provide 26 weeks of what they did for six weeks this year. Is that possible? Yeah, sure. Probably? Nah, not so much. But you have to hang your hat on something. Somebody has to produce for low pay somewhere, for the Jays to be successful.

Now, having outlined the dream, here's the reality. The Jays are going young and cheap. Forget Beltre, Cameron and Guerrero. Maybe forget Scutaro and probably forget Barajas. And almost certainly hang onto to that memory of Roy Halladay striding off the mound two months ago, having won his last start as a Toronto Blue Jay. He's going to go. It's just a matter of where, with a little when thrown in. His fabulous Blue Jay career is done.

So, we have the normal contenders for the best pitcher in baseball. I really don't like the usual Yankee package being bruited. The catcher can't catch and I'm not sold on any pitcher not named Phil Hughes, and he's not escaping pinstripes. Austin Jackson is a year away and answers a need. But he's not the outfielder rose amongst the flowers being offered up. The Boston fleecing of Cleveland in the Victor Martinez deal makes all Boston prospects suspect. And Philly is looking for a third-baseman on the open market already, and might not have the pennies AND prospects, after Cliff Lee cost them all of their B-guys.

One trade suggested by somebody is a New York Mets package for highly touted OF Fernando Martinez and SS Wilmer Flores. Neither is old enough to vote and neither has torn it up in the minors. But both have that 'IT' factor highly touted prospects for New York teams have. And there's only the two of them in the trade, cuz the Mets would ALSO take Wells and his contract off Toronto's hands at the same time. And to me, that would be the trade breaker. Trading Halladay has to replenish a Blue Jay farm system that just doesn't have any prospective star major leaguers in it. I'm not even sure the usual future Jays that we normally talk about; Jackson, Cooper, the second basemrn, Arencibia and the late-blossoming Dopirak will ever round out a big league bench, let alone start for any team. A Halladay trade MUST garner one and probably two current big leaguers, the second one being a rookie. A star-potential minor leaguer and a project have to be included too. There HAS to be a potential star and there HAS to be at least four potential future Jays in the deal. Otherwise, it's best to take those two draft picks Halladay will bring in the summer of 2011. He's worth that much to a young Blue Jay team as a mentor and role model for one more season.

For me, the team I think Toronto matches up with is Texas. It'll take Neftali Perez or Derek Holland, Brandon McCarthy and two of the better Ranger prospects, but that's the kind of deal GM-Alex needs to make. I just wish the ownership in Texas didn't have such a case of the cash shorts right now. Otherwise, I think this hookup would be a cinch.

Overbay has to go too. I do think Atlanta would be a good destination. If Overbay, a fine fielder, ever re-developed some of his power long term, you are talking about a .280 hitting Gold Glove candidate with 20 homer and 50 double potential. And for $7M, not crazy expensive. Scutaro has to go too, cuz he's worth more as two high draft picks than he would be playing in Toronto for the next couple of years in rebuilding. Barajas has to go, because he's just not worth the money. In a rebuilding Blue Jays season, they be looking to pair Chavez with either Arencibia or more likely Brian Jeroloman. Keeping Jeroloman and Chavez, both defensive whizzes, would give Arencibia time for a full-time gig in Las Vegas. After that, the Blue Jays would know whether he's a legit prospect or not. Of course, I STILL think we should sign John McDonald and give him the shortstop spot full-time, since anybody demonstrably better overall would be counter-productive in terms of paying too much for a team with such modest goals.

That leaves an offensive roster with some talent, Lind and Aaron Hill. Snider, who can't possibly play right field full time at the major league level, probably can become an average-plus left fielder offensively and something close to adequate defensively. And you still have Wells. I'd go out and sign one of Marlon Byrd, Randy Winn or Rick Ankiel to play right field. Maybe a Coco Crisp and slide Wells to right would be an alternative. And you know, I wouldn't even hate the idea of Eric Hinske being the latest Blue Jay to come home and play right. Shockingly, I also think Bautista could play right for a year while the Jays regroup for a better bunch of choices a year hence. What the Jays cannot do is go with Lind-Wells-Snider across the outfield grass. That's waaaaaay too ugly to contemplate. Lind is either a future 1B or a DH with the ability to spell Snider in left on occasion.

Edwin Encarnacion will get a chance to prove himself fully healthy. I'd even consider signing him to an extension now, say for two extra years at $4M each plus a team option for $5M. The reason? I think he can shift to right field if the hot corner proves too much for him. I think he could provide the same kind of game Hinske or Bautista could provide. And that's a worst-case scenario. If, on the other hand, he comes back to 2007 levels, the contract would be a bargain. Like I say, you gotta hit the occasional homer out of the ballpark, and I think Encarnacion is the only Blue Jay with unshown upside.

In addition to Halladay, some of the other highly-thought of Blue Jay pitchers would have to go. Scott Downs and Brian Tallet would be the most obvious trading chips. But I'd do my best to move Jason Frasor and Jeremy Accardo, assuming either aren't made free agents earlier. I would expect young projects back for the first two and salary relief back for the latter two. And I would see if Brandon League could handle the closer duties. If not, he'd go mid-season. Otherwise, I'd fill with the kids who pitched in Toronto this year. No signing wise old vets. I'd get maybe one, somebody in the vein of Dan Plesac when he was here. Somebody to talk to. Otherwise, I'd just let the kids pitch in the big leagues, rather than down in Las Vegas, what with that bandbox confidence-crusher of a stadium. I'd TRY to talk Gaston into letting them pitch themselves out of trouble, surely a bargain Gaston can make for the managing/consulting gift of a contract given to him by old pal CEO Paul Beeston.

The goal of the reconstituted Blue Jays would be win 63 games. And get a high draft choice in 2011. And to sign the bunch of picks the team will have in 2010, even if it means overpaying them. The need is to expand the talent base of players who won't cost too much until well into the next decade. Then, with some judicious talent drafting and a bigger budget, the team can go on the financial hunt when the prey is much, much better out there than it is now. The club will know if Snider is legit and whether Lind can play first. Whichever (if any) of the Ricciardi era draft screwups can overcome their current low evaluations will be known. The talent acquired for Halladay will be contributing or close to it. That's when the purse-strings will come off and GM-Alex will show whether he's really the wunderkind Beeston thinks he is.

But it's probably going to be a couple of very bad years for the Blue Jays and their fans. I just hope Vernon Wells will keep my company during those campaigns.

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