Vernon Wells sees chance to win
TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was easier some springs than others for Vernon Wells to convince himself his team had a chance to contend. By mid-May or early June, the mirage had vanished, leaving what looked like an endless waste of filler months on the schedule.
After a while, playing on a team that seemed etched into a third- or fourth-place finish every single season, you simply bowed to the inevitable.
"Playing in that division for so long, you just get used to it," Wells said.
There were times the Toronto Blue Jays put up a good fight, keeping the two biggest-payroll teams in baseball at bay, but they rarely lasted long. For years the Blue Jays knew they'd have a good chance every fifth day, but then Roy Halladay was on the move. Kelvim Escobar had already left. Lyle Overbay left; Kevin Gregg moved on.
Two years ago, the New York Yankees went on an unrivaled winter spending spree, doling out $423.5 million in long-term contracts. The Boston Red Sox and Yankees have to shadow each other's moves or risk letting down their sensitive fan bases. In Toronto, the Blue Jays were lucky if they could nip at those behemoths' heels.
"As a competitor, you go into it thinking you have as legitimate a chance as anybody," Wells said. "Obviously, there are teams in that division that are able to go out and make moves and improve as much as they want to, but as a player, you think, 'Yeah, if we play the game the right way, do the things we need to do, we've got a chance.'"
Wells was the guy Toronto hoped would anchor its chances amid all that madness. While other players moved on when they reached free agency, the Blue Jays chose to lock down Wells. General manager J.P. Ricciardi signed him to a seven-year, $126 million extension in December 2006.
That was good news for Wells and his family, of course. But it also practically guaranteed he would remain stuck in the also-ran column year after year. For the past few seasons, people have viewed Wells as among the most untradable players in baseball because of his salary.
As he eased into his 30s, it began to dawn on him that he wasn't going to win in Toronto. He had already crossed off most of the individual accolades: All-Star appearances, Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger. When the Los Angeles Angels, thwarted in each of their free-agent inquiries, started poking around, Wells' eyes lit up. He agreed to the trade unaware at the time he would be asked to change positions, always a dicey proposition.
"He wants a ring," said Angels right fielder Torii Hunter, who has known Wells since 1999. "He's never been to the playoffs. Never. Think about how hungry he is and how much of a difference that's going to make since he's got a chance to win with the Angels."
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There were plenty of people who thought the Angels made a bad deal when they landed Wells, and there are others who might question Wells' handicapping skills. After all, the Blue Jays won five more games than the Angels last year. So, why did Wells list the Angels and the hometown Texas Rangers as the only two teams he would allow himself to be traded to?
The Texas part is obvious. He lives within an easy drive of the ballpark and the Rangers went to the World Series last year. The Angels?
"I kind of sat back and looked at some of the names that were on this club, that were in this starting rotation," Wells said recently at his spring training locker. "There's something special in this clubhouse and you start to realize it each and every day you're here."
Wells didn't find out until he got on the phone with Angels general manager Tony Reagins after the trade that he would be moving positions. It was kind of a blind leap on the Angels' part, though there still is the possibility Wells will play center field if Peter Bourjos struggles to hit.
Wells has developed a reputation as an easygoing star, so the Angels were willing to risk it.
"We had enough information on Vernon that we knew it wasn't going to be an issue," manager Mike Scioscia said.
The trade that sent Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera packing seemed to get universally bad reviews, but few people evaluate talent the way the Angels do. Modern analysts downgrade Wells as an offensive threat because of his free-swinging ways. His lifetime on-base percentage is .329, which is barely better than average.
But the Angels saw a player who still had a hefty tool belt. At 32, Wells still has speed, can hit for power and plays efficiently in the outfield, particularly if you tuck him into a corner. His father, also named Vernon, was a receiver in the Canadian Football League and had a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Before he signed with Toronto in 1997, Wells had scholarship offers from Texas and a handful of other schools to play football. Hunter saw Wells' rare athleticism up close. After one of their offseason workouts 12 years ago, the two raced. Wells got the better of Hunter and, when they checked the electronic timer, Hunter said, Wells had gone 40 yards in 4.3 seconds. That's elite speed even by NFL standards.
Hunter figures Wells will fit easily into the Angels' outfield and clubhouse. Already, Scioscia has stuck Wells with the bill at group dinners this spring.
"He sits back, he takes it, he relaxes, cracks jokes," Hunter said. "He's easy, man. These guys come and talk to him. It seems like he's been here forever with us already."Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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