One of the questions that has continued to pop up all winter long as the Mariners keep adding outfielders is “What about Casper Wells?”
Indeed, what about Wells? We’re still less than two years removed from the Doug Fister trade with the Tigers in which Wells arrived in Seattle as possibly the front-liner to the deal. Folks forget how valued Wells once was in Detroit as a prospect, with the idea that he might one day be that team’s everyday center fielder. That ended when the Tigers acquired Austin Jackson from the Yankees, but the point is, Wells was a versatile enough athlete that he was viewed as a potential star at three outfield positions.
That star had faded somewhat as a prospect by the time the Mariners acquired him. But it’s safe to say the Mariners viewed Wells as at least a major league regular in the outfield corners as well as a potential backup in center field. Today, Wells is viewed as a fourth outfielder and one who might not hang on to that role if some additional moves are made.
So, what happened? Better still, how can Wells rehabilitate his image within his own organization?
Not to go all CSI on you, but the forensic examination as to what killed Wells’s reputation won’t take very long. It wouldn’t even fill 15 minutes of an hour-long episode. All the evidence needed is contained in the period of June 28 through Aug. 7, when the Mariners allowed Wells to start in 34 consecutive games.
His results: a .209 batting average, .267 on-base percentage, .381 slugging percentage and .648 OPS with 36 strikeouts and only 8 walks in 151 plate appearances.
We did a blog post just over a year ago about understanding the differences between full-time and part-time players and how grasping those differences can spare fans from weeks of angst over why a team views certain players in certain ways. Well, that post applied to understanding why the Mariners spent all off-season trying to trade John Jaso. And it spells out rather clearly why Wells now appears to have tumbled several notches down the totem poll of how the Mariners rate their talent.
Wells, to put it simply, showed the Mariners during that extended five-week audition as a full-time player that he could not sustain his numbers.
Prior to that period of consecutive games started, Wells had amassed some impressive numbers with days off and limited appearances in-between. What helped him get a look as a full-time player was what he did in his first seven games back up — five of them starts — after a stint in Class AAA. Starting with the June 13 date of his callup, Wells went 11-for-21 (.521) with a .545 OBP and a 1.260 OPS. Naturally, numbers like those will perk the interest of teams that desperately need players who can produce like that over a longer term. Wells had already shown some short term spurts upon arriving in Seattle in August of 2011, when he popped home runs in multiple games in a row before getting beaned in the face by a pitch.
So, the Mariners tried to see whether he could sustain it full-time. And he could not. There can be no arguing this point. It’s right there in black and white for anybody willing to look.
Now, if Wells was a raw rookie in his first rodeo, then he’d probably get more than a five-week audition. But Wells will enter this season at age 28 — two years older than Michael Saunders. The Mariners had already made a partial call on Wells in spring training last year, limiting him to a part time role to start and then even shipping him to AAA when hit by a roster crunch.
But after Wells showed something upon his return, the Mariners were willing to take a second look. They were willing to admit they may have been wrong about his part-time limitations and gave him five consecutive weeks of starts to show them something.
And what they got was a .648 OPS. Even in Seattle, where offensive players have come to die of late, a .648 OPS is not what full-time outfielders are made of.
I was among the loudest proponents in favor of giving Wells that extended shot. I railed against the Mariners in May when they sent Wells to AAA and kept Chone Figgins on the roster instead. My feeling at the time were that Wells needed to be given a shot at succeeding or failing full-time before being relegated to afterthought status. Today, things have changed. He got his shot. Will he get another? That depends: on Wells and also on the Mariners.
What Wells can control best is what he does when he is playing. The big knock I’ve heard against him within the organization is his high strikeout totals. You can strike out a lot when you have an OBP up near .340 or .350. Not when your OBP is down around .300. That’s a no-no.
One reason that could explain why Wells struck out so much with extended playing time is fatigue. Playing every day wears a player down and is usually what differentiates full-timers from part-timers. And it’s not even a physical thing. Wells keeps himself in great physical shape, knows plenty about nutrition and is about what any coach wants their players to be when it comes to in-season and off-season conditioning.
So, based on that, I’d say this is likely more of a mental fatigue issue. Not every athlete can stay mentally strong over an extended period of games played. This means staying focused and keeping within yourself when at the plate. Saunders, for one, improved greatly at that last season. It means being decisive when you get a pitch you can hit and not being caught in that “in-between” moment of hesitation. It means having the mental discipline not to chase bad pitches and to take your walks when they come your way. It means staying tight on your swings, maintaining your form and going the other way with tough pitches if needed.
Based off the high strikeout totals for Wells and his paucity of walks, I’d say he got caught in-between a whole lot during his extended period of playing time. And nothing drives manager Eric Wedge crazier than players caught in-between.
What can Wells do now? A more consistent job at being mentally strong when the fatigue of the grind sets in. I highly doubt it’s a physical thing with him. Instead, he’s got to be more mentally tough and decisive at the plate, more disciplined in his execution and get the job done to a greater degree. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. And that’s why a guy like Saunders just spent a second straight winter tying himself up with large rubber bands and wielding a 60-ounce bat in the cage to work on keeping his swing tight.
So, Wells can improve at that.
The rest is up to the Mariners. Wells is out of options, so he’ll have to make the team out of spring training. Right now, I think he will if nothing changes, simply because he’s still pre-arbitration (cheap) and can play all three outfield positions rather well with one of the team’s strongest throwing arms.
If anything happens injury-wise to Franklin Gutierrez — which, by now, we should assume is always possible — then Saunders becomes the starting center fielder and Wells would be the only guy left capable of backing him up. So, yeah, jettisoning Wells without bringing in another center fielder would be quite a risk.
But if the Mariners were to sign,say, Michael Bourn, then I think there’s a good chance that Wells could be dealt. The team doesn’t need Wells and Saunders and Gutierrez and Bourn all capable of manning center. If Gutierrez was traded along with a Bourn acquisition, then Wells could still remain as a fourth outfielder, but even that would be up in the air with Saunders still able to fill-in at center in a pinch.
So, that’s where we are. That’s why all of these moves continue to be made even though Wells is still on the team. Not every player under age 30 is going to keep getting opportunities simply because of their birthdate. Teams sometimes have to make calls on full-timers and part-timers and sometimes they’ll even be wrong about it. But teams don’t always have year after year to watch that play out.
Right now, the knock on Wells, as it was with Jaso, is that he’s a part-time player. And evaluating them is not as easy as combining multiple years of playing time into one 600 at-bat sample and saying “if he’d played full-time, this is what he’d get.”
That’s not how the game works. That’s not how MLB teams evaluate.
So, this is where things stand for Wells. What happens from here is up to him. Only he can change how he’s perceived, whether it’s with the Mariners, or some other team down the road.