Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Analyzing the Rumor: Vernon Wells for Mark Teixeira 

In this week's Baseball Weekly, Bob Nightingale suggests that the Rangers are talking to the Toronto Blue Jays about trading Mark Teixeira for Blue Jay centerfielder Vernon Wells.

Wells to Texas has been kicking around for a few years now, in no small part because of his Texas roots. Wells is a graduate of Bowie High School, in Arlington, and committed to the University of Texas before the Blue Jays made him the 5th overall pick in the 1997 draft. The Hardliners on the Ticket were big proponents of a Blalock-for-Wells trade for a while, and in 2002, John Hart's first year in Texas, there were rumblings during spring training that a deal involving Blalock to Toronto, as part of a package that would fetch Cris Carpenter and Vernon Wells, came very close to being consummated.

Hart has been convinced since he got here that TBIA, with the vast amount of room one must cover in center field, dictates that the Rangers have a fleet player with a lot of range at centerfield. Wells fits the bill defensively, and with his power bat, is one of the more tantalizing power/speed combos out there.

A straight Teixeira for Wells swap is intriguing, with the players having certain parallels. Both players were taken with the #5 pick in the draft -- Wells in 1997, and Teixeira in 2001 out of Georgia Tech. Both were considered elite prospects coming up -- Wells was Baseball America's #4 prospect in 2000 and the #12 prospect in 2001, while Teixeira was the #10 prospect on the 2002 list and the #1 prospect on the 2003 list. They are also similar in age, with the 24 year old Teixeira being 16 months younger than Wells.

Their skill sets and contractual situations differ enough, however, to make a trade conceivable. Wells is a speedy centerfield with power but little plate discipline...he'll hit homers, steal bases, and play quality defense, but he's not going to walk enough to post a terribly high OBP.

Teixeira, meanwhile, following the path of sluggers like Mark McGwire, Jeff Bagwell, and Jim Thome, has already moved from third base to first base, although he has the arm and mobility to play right field competently. Still, while his defense at first base gets good marks, it isn't the premium defensive position that centerfield is, and Teixeira doesn't have near the speed of Wells. However, he is a switch-hitter with an excellent eye at the plate (he posted an 89 point spread between average and OBP in 2004, after a 72 point spread in 2003, both impressive numbers for a young hitter), and his power potential is considered to be greater than Wells'.

Wells is under contract through 2007, and is owed $12.8 million over the next three years, after which he will be a free agent. Teixeira will make $2.5 million in 2005, and then will be arbitration eligible for 2006 through 2008.

According to some folks in the DFW media, the contract situation with Teixeira is one of the sticking points. In Cleveland, John Hart pioneered the tactic of locking up young players through their arb-eligible years, getting the players signed for less than they'd likely make in arbitration and gaining cost certainty for budgetary purposes. In the past several months, he has signed Hank Blalock, Francisco Cordero, and Michael Young to such long-term deals, and is supposedly talking to Ryan Drese about a similar arrangement.

Teixeira, however, has reportedly rebuffed talks of a long-term extension, and his agent, Scott Boras, is well-known for spurning such contracts and preferring to go the arbitration route, to try to maximize his client's possible return. Going through arbitration from 2006-2008 with Teixeira, if he continues to produce as he has, would likely result in the Ranger paying him in the neighborhood of $20 million for those three seasons.

So it can be argued that, from a financial standpoint, the Rangers may prefer the locked-in contract of Wells rather than going through arbitration repeatedly with Teixeira, even though Wells is eligible for free agency a season before Teixeira is. Peter Gammons, Buck Showalter's buddy at ESPN, has also reported repeatedly that the Rangers want to get rid of the "Boras influence" with the team, which has led to speculation that Teixeira could be shopped. Radio host Norm Hitzges went so far to say earlier this season that the Rangers were getting frustrated with Teixeira, and were getting close to "making a decision" on him, thinking that he was a J.D. Drew-type expensive tease, who would cost a lot of money, show flashes of ability, and not stay healthy, making him more valuable as a trade chip (particularly with Adrian Gonzalez on the way) than as a member of the team.

That talk, of course, was largely floating around in late-May, when Teixeira was struggling after returning from the oblique strain that put him on the D.L. Teixeira then went on a tear that continued pretty much through the end of the season; Teixeira and Kevin Mench were at times the only players hitting in the second half for the Rangers, and Teixeira's name even got kicked around as an M.V.P. candidate. And while that would seem to quell the trade talk, Teixeira's name is still popping up here and there.

A possible trade becomes a little harder to evaluate because of the divergent seasons the two players had this year. Teixeira posted a 929 OPS and an EQA of .301, with a WARP3 of 6.9. Wells, meanwhile, posted an 809 OPS, a .275 EQA and a 5.4 WARP3. Given that Teixeira is the younger player, a look at just the 2004 numbers would give a significant edge to Teixeira.

The situation was reversed in 2003, however...Wells' .303 EQA and 9.2 WARP3 made him an MVP candidate, while Teixeira's .274 EQA and 3.3 WARP3 had folks labeling his rookie season as a mild disappointment. And Wells' 2004 season was marred by a calf strain that put him on the D.L. in June, and hampered him even after his return.

The interesting thing about their 2004 performances, however, is how well they dovetail with Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA forecasts. Coming into 2004, PECOTA forecast Teixeira to be the better offensive player, despite Wells' 29 point edge in EQA the previous year; and Teixeira's actual performance puts him close to PECOTA's 75th percentile projection of a .306 EQA. Wells, meanwhile, despite his success in 2003, was projected to drop in 2004, and his actual performance came in just slightly above PECOTA's 25th percentile projection of .269.

So while Teixeira slightly exceeded what PECOTA projected as his midpoint, and Wells slightly underperformed, neither player's performance in 2004 deviated greatly from what PECOTA thought was reasonable from each player. And as such, PECOTA's forecasts for beyond 2004 offer some insight...Teixeira's 50% projections come in at an EQA of around .300 for the next four years, while Wells' projections are in the low-.280s. Should each player meet these expectations, Wells probably has the slight edge, given the additional value he has as a centerfielder, but the difference between the two is slight. PECOTA's Wins Added actually gives Teixeira a slight edge over that period.

The other aspect of PECOTA that provides for a terrific contrast between the two is the similar players listed. BP provides a "Similarity Index", a score which shows how unique a player is compared to other players historically, along with a list of the 20 most similar players. Teixeira's score of 32 indicates that he is a relatively unique player, something that is usually more indicative of a special talent. Moreover, the list of players most similar to Teixeira is very impressive...Dale Murphy, Boog Powell, Eric Chavez, Scott Rolen, Jose Canseco, Cal Ripken, and Manny Ramirez are all names that jump off the list, along with players like Larry Parrish, Ruben Sierra, George Scott, Willie Horton, Ken Hrbek, Chili Davis, and Bob Watson, guys who were quality major leaguers who had solid careers.

As noted by the similarity score, Teixeira is a relatively unique player, and the PECOTA system had to strain a little more to find comparable players. But the two things that jumps out at me, in looking at the comps, is the large number of players who took big steps forward the year after the one examined -- 11 of the 20 did, with none significantly regressing -- and the fact that the major difference between Teixeira and the less-successful comps is generally in Teixeira's much superior walk rate. Teixeira's combination of plate discipline and power is rare in a player so young, and the pairing makes it that much more likely that he will become one of the great players of this era.

Wells' PECOTA, in contrast, reflects a similarity score of 43...while he's not terribly common, his skill set is significantly more frequently found than Teixeira's is. Moreover, there are quite a few players who fall in the good, but not great, category with his comps...Al Oliver, Dusty Baker, Ellis Burks, Tommie Agee. Reggie Smith is probably the best player from his 20 most comparables, but unlike with Teixeira's comps, there are no truly "great" players.

And more troubling, you see too many names on like Kevin McReynolds, Raul Mondesi, Rondell White, Gabe Kapler, Darryl Motley, Mike Ivie. Guys who were highly-touted prospects -- White was among BA's top 15 for four straight years, Mondesi cracked the top 20 a couple of times, McReynolds and Motley were stud outfield prospects in the 1980s, Ivie was the #1 overall pick in 1970 -- who showed some flash early in their careers, and then fizzled.

My initial reaction was that I really didn't like the idea of trading Teixeira for Wells. Having looked deeper into the situation, it is a little more complicated than my knee-jerk "Hell no" would have suggested...quality centerfielders are harder to find than quality first basemen, Wells is less expensive than Teixeira, and there's a pretty good chance that the two will be about equal in value over the next three years.

The biggest thing to me, though, is that Teixeira is a guy who seems to have a much better chance of being a superstar than Wells does. Wells is a very good player, but his lack of plate discipline and power limitations mean that he's never going to be in the realm of dominant players, the Hall of Fame and perennial MVP candidates.

Teixeira might not be, either...but looking at what he's done thusfar, the potential is there, much more so than with Wells. And I'd rather see the Rangers keep him, and try to let him tap that potential in a Ranger uniform, instead of a Blue Jay uniform.

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