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Monday, January 24, 2011
Notes: Trade hurts Vernon Wells' value

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

It's always big news in fantasy baseball when a Top 100 player -- 81st to be exact, judging by our 2010 Player Rater -- gets traded. Even in January.

But as exciting as it is that Vernon Wells is headed to new surroundings -- he's the newest member of the Los Angeles Angels -- there's a good chance that he won't be nearly as effective as he was last year in Toronto. Let's get to the supporting numbers.

Wells is 32 years old, approaching the stage of a player's career in which he'd typically begin to decline, even if only gradually initially. Despite his 31-homer, .847 OPS outburst last season, he has hit more than 16 home runs or produced an OPS greater than .711 just twice in the past four years. And in his final 124 games last season -- in other words, excluding his torrid April -- Wells hit just .255, with a .310 OBP and .475 slugging percentage; only the slugging was greater than the 2010 major league averages (.257/.325/.403).

Vernon Wells
Since the start of the 2006 season, Vernon Wells has hit just .188 at Angel Stadium.

In other words, there were already reasonable concerns about Wells' prospects to repeat, but toss in a change in ballparks and his chances are even slimmer. Consider this: Rogers Centre has ranked among the 10 most favorable home run venues, per our park factors page, in three of the past five seasons. Angel Stadium of Anaheim, meanwhile, has ranked among the 10 least favorable home run venues in three of the past five. Data I ran around the All-Star break last season -- and plan to update in the coming weeks -- showed that Rogers Centre ranked among the 10 most favorable home run parks both overall and for right-handed hitters since 2005. By comparison, Angel Stadium didn't even rank in the top half in baseball overall, and was 14th for right-handed hitters.

Sure enough, Wells has capitalized. Last season alone he was a .321/.363/.628 hitter at home, compared to .227/.301/.407 on the road, hitting 20 of his 31 homers at Rogers Centre. Dating back to 2006, Wells had .279/.335/.510 rates at home compared to .271/.323/.430 on the road. As a result, it's reasonable to think he will decline to closer to 20 homers than 30, and it's not like there is a dearth of .280-hitting (that's Wells' career number), 20-homer outfielders. In 2010, there were 15 of 'em. Frankly, in a fantasy league, I'd rather have both former Toronto Blue Jays teammates Travis Snider (my No. 41 outfielder) and Rajai Davis (No. 43).

Mike Napoli, the Blue Jays' top prize in the deal, actually ranked higher than Wells in fantasy before the trade, and could be ranked even higher now that he's in a more homer-friendly environment. It might seem like there's greater at-bat uncertainty for Napoli in Toronto than L.A., but that's not necessarily the case; the Jays have plenty of moving parts between catcher, designated hitter and both corner infield and outfield positions, and that means opportunities. Napoli managed a career-high 510 plate appearances with the Angels last season, helped by the season-ending injury to Kendry Morales, and he shouldn't have any trouble repeating or exceeding that in Toronto. He can log the bulk of his at-bats at DH, while also helping alleviate pressure on rookie J.P. Arencibia at catcher and spot starting for lefty-phobic Adam Lind at first base.

Assuming Napoli plays that much, it's not unthinkable that he's the slugger in this deal with the 31-homer 2011. After all, he hit 26 last season with the Angels. Keep in mind that in the past three seasons combined, he was a .239/.334/.489 hitter at Angel Stadium, compared to .276/.347/.514 everywhere else. Considering he's a catcher-eligible player who might tally greater than 50 percent of his at-bats at DH, Napoli could make a run at top-5 status as a fantasy backstop.

Juan Rivera, the other Blue Jays pickup in the deal, could also experience a boost in value with the change in ballparks. He's no lock to start in that outfield, but he could quickly land a regular role on a corner depending upon whether Jose Bautista mans right field or third base. Rivera has two 20-homer campaigns to his credit, both in the past five seasons, has averaged 22 homers per 162 career games played and could be quite the AL-only value, assuming he lands a regular gig in the spring.

Consider both moves frustrating to prospect-chasers, however. While the Angels improved their outfield defense with the deal -- Bobby Abreu can now be a regular DH -- speedy Peter Bourjos' playing time in center field is now at risk, especially with rumors afoot that the Angels might also add free agent Scott Podsednik. Bourjos, who swiped 10 bags in 51 games for the Angels last year after stealing 27 in 102 games in Triple-A, isn't quite as attractive an AL-only bargain speedster with these hints that the Angels don't trust him as an Opening Day starter. In Toronto, meanwhile, Arencibia becomes one of three viable Opening Day starters on the roster, but he's the least experienced, isn't the power source that Napoli is, or the defender that Jose Molina is. Arencibia will now need to impress during camp to make the team, and the Blue Jays might prefer to return him to Triple-A, where he can play every day.

Don't look to the Angels' catchers as significant sources of fantasy production with Napoli gone. His departure is a clear sign that the Angels value Jeff Mathis' defense, but with .200/.264/.303 hitting rates in 246 games combined the past three seasons, Mathis is a black hole for fantasy. Prospect Hank Conger, a .297 career minor league hitter, could receive an extended look, but his injury history is troublesome, and he's not close to the power source Napoli was.

Rays sign Damon, Manny

Johnny Damon & Manny Ramirez
Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, together again.

Apparently the Tampa Bay Rays have decided that if they can't compete financially with the rival Boston Red Sox in the free-agent market, they might as well steal some of the Sox's history. By signing Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, they've landed two members of the 2004 World Series champions. Unfortunately, as with Wells, past history doesn't necessarily equal future performance, and a lot of time has passed since then; Damon is now 37 and Ramirez 38, and neither was close to 2004 form in 2010.

That said, if you're willing to consider the deals combined -- they'll earn $7.25 million total, even if Damon's deal ($5.25 million) seems a bit high and Ramirez's ($2 million) a bit low -- they're smart pickups for the Rays, who seemed to wait forever to make their winter moves. Remember, it was only two years ago that Damon was an exceptional No. 2 hitter, and three years ago that Ramirez was an MVP-caliber cleanup hitter, and if you consider their hitting rates since those seasons, Damon's .271/.355/.401 (in 2010) and Ramirez's .293/.414/.501 (in 2009 and 2010) suggest they can still serve as above-average options.

Damon will presumably take over in left field -- DH is almost assuredly Ramirez's -- and a spot among the top two in the lineup, having managed a .350 on-base percentage or greater in each of the past seven seasons. Though his 24-homer outburst in 2009 was clearly a mirage, fueled by the hitter-friendly environment at the new Yankee Stadium, he's still a good bet for a .350 on-base percentage, meaning plenty of runs scored if he can accrue everyday at-bats. They'll likely come, but if you're a Desmond Jennings fan, understand that Damon's at-bats might come at the rookie's expense. The Rays could platoon the two, hurting their fantasy values, or return Jennings to Triple-A for more seasoning, which also suppresses his arbitration eligibility. Damon's arrival could be considered a black mark on Jennings' 2011 fantasy potential, except for one factor: Damon is such a poor option as an everyday left fielder that the Rays might have to summon Jennings sooner out of concern for the negative impact on their pitching staff. Either way, right now neither player can be considered a certain mixed-league pick, because they might divvy up the at-bats in a way that limits them to AL-only appeal.

Ramirez, meanwhile, should serve as the everyday DH as long as he's healthy, which is quite the question at his age. He made three separate trips to the disabled list last season alone, and just once in the past five seasons has he appeared in more than 133 games. He has been a productive slugger around his absences, albeit one who's not quite as Hall of Fame-caliber since his return from suspension in 2009, batting .284/.399/.476 in 167 games. That's still a productive bat, and there are prime lineup spots available at four, five and six in Tampa Bay, making Ramirez well worth consideration, while he's active, even in a mixed league. As always, mixed-league owners should remember that such players are often undervalued because it's not nearly as difficult to find temporary fill-ins during their DL stints.

Dan Johnson should serve as the Rays' first baseman with Ramirez on board, and Matt Joyce will need to fight for at-bats in right field, meaning the player who most suffers from these moves -- other than Jennings -- is Sean Rodriguez. He might again serve as just a part-timer at second base and right field, so prepare accordingly.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.