This is the fifth part of a series of posts on the keys to the Toronto Blue Jays 2010 season. Part I, where we introduced and laid out all the keys, is here. Part II, in which we discussed the importance of Kyle Drabek's continued emergence as a future ace, is here. Part III, which focused on growth of Aaron Hill and Adam Lind, is here. Part IV centered on the continued contributions from Ricky Romero and can be found here. In this post, we will focus on the importance of a bounce-back season from Vernon Wells.
4. Vernon Wells -- Vernon's got a lot of money coming to him in the next few years, so if you think he's going to be wearing another uniform anytime soon, you're wrong (unless, for some reason, he decides to befriend some of those annoying fake umpires from last season). As long as Vernon's healthy and his contract is still on the books, they're going to be playing him. A nice bounce-back season could go a long way to making this team seem competitive again before 2015.
Even as an ardent supporter of Vernon Wells, as 2009 wound down I found myself more than a little worried about the prospects of the Jays current centrefielder down the line. For a player still guaranteed $107 M (per Cot's), it was more than a little bit disconcerting to see Wells struggle to reach replacement-level, as documented here. At season's end, Vernon Wells managed to be worth three runs (0.3 WAR) according to Sean Smith and 0.4 runs (0.0 WAR) according to fangraphs. Although I was somewhat pleased that Vernon did manage replacement-level production (set your goals low enough and you'll rarely be disappointed!), I was quite worried about what that would mean for the Jays going forward. Because the Jays are basically locked into playing Vernon full-time over the next several seasons, he needs to bounce back (both at the plate, where he was almost a full win below average, and in the field, where he was a win or more below average) if the Jays plan to compete before his contract comes off the books.
Pretty much everyone reading this knows that Vernon's days in centrefield should be numbered, even if the numbers we've seen from UZR (13.1 runs below average in 2008, 16.6 runs below average in 2009) discredit him more than they should. As we all know from the first sentence of Maurice Herzmark's The Evolution of the Knee Joint, "the knee joint is the largest joint in the body and the most vulnerable one." Patrolling centre on the turf at SkyDome (vacuuming by Dave Matheson of Moxy Früvous aside) is not exactly the best thing for a 230 lb man to do eighty one days every summer for ten or fifteen years straight. Even aside from problems of ineffectiveness, it would likely behoove the Jays to move Vernon into a corner slot somewhat sooner than later simply to keep the big guy healthy.
Generally, a league-average centrefielder is assumed to be worth ten runs above average in a corner slot, though there's been some debate about that recently since leftfield seems to be commonly used as a place to stash guys like Adam Dunn, Carlos Lee and Raul Ibanez. Given that Wells seemed to look a bit better in the outfield towards the end of last season, I'd say that he would be fine in rightfield and a few runs above-average in left. Tom Tango's positional adjustments suggest that if Wells was a league-average rightfielder, his fielding would be worth -7.5 runs (about eight runs more than it was worth according to UZR last season), but considering that it is actually probably more difficult to play in right, the adjustment might be closer to five runs (suggesting that, as an average rightfielder, Vernon would be worth a full win more than he was worth as a poor centrefielder). Again, it's certainly possible that Wells bounces back in the field in 2010 (he looked better last year as the season went on), but do not expect him to be like Mike Cameron.
At the plate, well, what needs to be said? Vernon's already been worth more than a win (!) in 2010. He certainly won't keep producing at the rate that he has so far, but ZiPS has already upped its projection for his OPS one hundred points from 744 (.260 / .314 / .430) to 846 (.279 / .340 / .506). Going into this season, ZiPS projected 17 HR. The expectation now is that he'll hit 19 more from here on out, for a total of 26. His ISOp won't be .491 come season's end, of course, but, remember -- it doesn't need to be as long as he doesn't fall off a cliff, either. If Wells does nothing more than match his updated ZiPS projection this year, he'll be worth about two wins above average at the plate.
If Wells is worth two wins at the plate and is an half-run below average as an outfielder (assuming eight runs below average in centre), he'll be worth between three and four wins on the season. We may not be able to get out from under his contract, but if Vernon's posting four WAR seasons, we should be able to compete before it comes off the books. This makes the (somewhat unsubstantiated) assumption, of course, that Vernon Wells in 2011 and 2012 is more like Vernon Wells in 2010 than Vernon Wells in 2009. If we're getting 2009 Vernon going forward, that's just too much salary tied up in a replacement-level player for a team with a payroll like the Jays.