Toronto Blue Jays

Vernon Wells: Understanding Ricciardi

DUNEDIN, FL - FEBRUARY 22:  Outfielder Vernon Wells of the Toronto Blue Jays poses for photos on media day at the Bobboy Mattix Training Center during spring training February 22, 2008 in Dunedin, Florida.  (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Josh LevittSenior Analyst IAugust 14, 2009

Recently Joe Posnanski, one of the best sportswriters in America, ranked the worst contracts in baseball (the piece is a must read). Not surprisingly, Posnanski ranks Vernon Wells's 7 year/$126 million dollar contract as the worst in baseball today. It's hard to argue with that logic considering that Wells has been one of the least valuable players in the American League this season and is still owed more than $80 million bucks. Yikes.

Here's what Posnanski writes about the Wells contract:

And it never made sense. Ever. Wells had a very good year in 2003 (and he was a very good fielder then), a couple of OK years, a good year in 2006 at age 27. But he never got on base much, and he was inconsistent, and…then the Blue Jays gave him this hysterical contract.

I completely agree with Posnanski here. When the deal was signed in 2006, it looked like the Blue Jays were dramatically overpaying for a player who was not the franchise player they believed he was. Essentially, the Blue Jays paid Vernon Wells to be the man, but the reality is that Vernon Wells was nothing more than a very good player, even in his prime.
I'm sure many Jays fans are asking why. Why did JP Ricciardi believe that signing Vernon Wells to such a big contract was a good move for the franchise?
I'm sure many Jays fans are asking how. How the hell did this contract happen?
Well after some research, I decided to dive into the world of the JP Ricciardi, circa 2006, to discover why and how this deal made sense for the Blue Jays at the time.



-One idea that people these days always forget about is that the Blue Jays were scared that Vernon Wells was going to leave the Jays at the end of the 2007 season for the Texas Rangers.

Wells went to high school in Arlington, Tex., where he lives. He is close to Texas shortstop Michael Young, and the Rangers' owner, Tom Hicks, has a history of lavish spending. ''Everybody wants him to come back and play here, and he would like to come back and play here,'' Wells Sr. said. ''If Michael Young stays here, they have always wanted to be in the big leagues together, too. The Blue Jays are aware of that.''

Perhaps Ricciardi felt that if he let Wells explore his free agent options after the 2007 season, that there was no way he would return to Toronto. Therefore, he overspent to keep Wells happy and in Toronto.


2. Ted Rogers


Beginning in 2005, Blue Jays owner Ted Rogers gave his baseball operations people the go-ahead to increase the payroll. Rogers did not believe that the Blue Jays could compete with the Yankees and Red Sox at the current payroll level, thus he authorized the payroll increase. Because of the payroll increase, the Blue Jays were able to go out and sign AJ Burnett, BJ Ryan, Troy Glaus, and eventually re-sign Vernon Wells.

"Ted is the type of owner who has been supportive of everything we've recommended so far," said Jays president Godfrey. "He has never shut the door. We made the point very early on that we had a few years to re-adjust our thinking and to dismantle.

"When we got to point where we were in a position to contend for a playoff spot, we knew more money would be there."

They just weren't certain how much.

This is the big change Rogers has made in his short time as owner. Whether it was his own determination to spend more (some say his friends goaded him into it), or a business decision, the fact is, Rogers is spending more.

Without the go-ahead to spend more, I doubt the Jays could have re-signed Wells. From Ricciardi's perspective, he probably did not know how long the payroll increase was going to last for, and decided to be aggressive with the opportunity to spend.


3. Little man complex
There was this idea around baseball at the time that the Blue Jays would spend some money, but they would never be close to the Yankees and Red Sox, both of whom can outspend the Blue Jays. Signing Vernon Wells to a lucrative extension was supposed to be a signal to the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the rest of baseball that the Blue Jays could and would compete with the best (on the field and financially) and that they were willing to spend to keep their own.

"It sends a message to baseball, it sends a message to the other players around the league, that this team is willing to do what it takes to get better," Wells said.


4. Gil Meche and Ted Lilly
Before signing Vernon Wells to the huge extension, Ricciardi went after two of the best free agent pitchers on the market—and missed out on both. Ted Lilly refused to re-sign with the Blue Jays and instead bolted for the Chicago Cubs and Gil Meche accepted a lucrative five year deal from the Kansas City Royals.

"We tried to get Lilly and Meche because we thought they could make our club better," Ricciardi said. "Now we have to go in a different direction, but it doesn't mean we have to trade Vernon Wells to do that.

"We're not in a panic mode. If people think we're up here pulling our hair out and taking cyanide pills because we didn't get who we wanted, that's not the case. This is just a part of the game you go through."
Perhaps Ricciardi did panic. Perhaps he felt that he needed to make a big splash after missing out on his two main targets of the offseason. In addition, Ricciardi was unable to upgrade the pitching staff through free agency, so instead, he decided to "stabilize" the offense by giving Vernon Wells a huge extension.
So there you have it. There's no doubt that you still think this deal is stupid. There is no doubt that there is a growing majority that believe Ricciardi should be fired solely because of this contract. But now, hopefully, we all can understand why Blue Jays GM JP Ricciardi decided to give Vernon Wells a 7 year/$126 million dollar deal.

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