Missed opportunities?

Continuing the theme of the previous planting here…

The LA Times reported yesterday that the Angels were considering trading for Vernon Wells or Andruw Jones before they signed Gary Matthews, Jr., to what has to be one of the worst free-agent contracts in many years. The asking price in the trade talks was too high.

The Times indicated that the Blue Jays are believed to have asked for Scot Shields and Ervin Santana. Too high a price? Yes, I like Santana, though I am a little less high on him than I was before his failure to grow in 2006 on his promising 2005 campaign. I understand the reluctance to trade a young and promising starting pitcher, but the organization is strong in pitching and practically devoid of outfield talent. Scot Shields has emerged as one of the best set-up men in the game, but relief pitchers are replaceable. When the Angels used him for 148.1 innings in 2003, he was really valuable (ERA of 2.85, which is about his career level). But his innings totals have declined every year (105.1, 91.2, 87.2) and he is now going on 32.* His record screams “trade me while they still think I am good!”

I don’t think either of these pitchers is untouchable, if they could be traded for a very good hitting outfielder in his prime. While Gary Matthews, Jr., did not cost any players, he is neither a very good hitter nor in his prime.

However, in comparing his recent stats with those of Wells, I was a little surprised at what I found. Wells is turning 28, and has a career .828 OPS and is a superlative defensive player. In the last three years his OPS is .831 (.338 & .493)–pretty good. However, he has a huge bonus from playing in Toronto: .936 (.364 & .572) at home, against .732 (.314 & .418) on the road.

Matthews over the last three years? OPS of .817 (.349 & .468), with essentially no difference home vs. road. Over the last three years, when we take the Toronto effect out of Wells, Matthews has had better batting stats.**

Jones, on the other hand, is going on 30 and has a career .850 OPS; .884 (.352 & .532) in his last three years. Jones has a very slightly better home than road OBP (.362 vs. .342), compensated by the power being a little better on the road (.551 vs. .511).

Jones, like Matthews, is most likely in decline, while Wells is in his prime. Even so, these statistical comparisons do not make me feel any better about getting Matthews, though they do make me feel a little better about not getting Wells.

With the Angels apparently unwilling to trade a 32-year-old set-up man with declining innings totals or trade from their strength in starting pitching, they are going to be left to over-pay in this year’s free-agent market. And one would be hard pressed–at least so far–to find a better definition of over-paying than five years and fifty million dollars for a 32-year-old outfielder coming off a career year.

* In 2003 Shields made 13 starts and 31 relief appearances; he has not started a game since then. Obviously, this accounts for the big drop in innings from 2003 to 2004. But it has continued to drop even as he has become exclusively a reliever. Whether this is because the Angels don’t think he can handle 100+ innings a year anymore, or is just a mis-use of his “rubber arm,” he is less valuable to the team the less he is pitching, and he is pitching less and less over time.

** How much of that is 2006? A lot. Matthews had OPS of .811, .756, and .866 in the last three years. Even so, his worst year overall of the last three is still better than Wells has been over the full three years on the road. And Matthews abysmal 2005 was mostly a product of collapsing at home (.672!), while he was adequate on the road even that year (.842).

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