In October, while still the Toronto Blue Jays’ center fielder, Vernon Wells was a Texas Rangers fan.
Sounds odd, I know. But here’s the explanation: Wells went to high school in Arlington, Texas. He still lives in the area. And one of his best friends in baseball — one of his best friends, period — is Michael Young, the Texas star and all-around stand-up guy.
So when Young reached the postseason for the first time last fall, Wells was there to support him. He even ordered a Michael Young jersey from Majestic. He bought the authentic model — nice mesh, with number 10 on the back.
Wells sat in the stands. Just a regular fan.
“The reaction was great,” he said. “People were saying, ‘It’s awesome that you’re supporting your boy.’”
But then the Rangers lost their first home playoff game … and the next one … and the one after that. So, Vernon Wells decided to retire his Michael Young jersey. (Would you expect anything different from a superstitious major leaguer?)
The wardrobe switch (of course) enabled the Rangers to clinch their first pennant in franchise history. Wells was there to see it. In fact, he didn’t miss a home playoff game. He was an excellent Rangers fan . . . who is now an ex-Rangers fan.
Hey, everything changes when you’re traded to the rival team.
“Yeah,” Wells acknowledged over the phone on Monday, “I don’t think I’ll be putting on that jersey again anytime soon.”
Nope. Wells is an Angel. He might play left. He might play center. He should bat somewhere in the middle of the lineup. He is 32 years old and will enjoy the feeling of natural grass beneath his feet during home games for the first time as a big leaguer.
But you probably know all of that already. Now, here’s a sentence on the subject that you may not have read:
Vernon Wells will be an outstanding player for the Los Angeles Angels.
Really. He will. “Thrive” was the word used by Toronto second baseman Aaron Hill, when asked how he expects Wells will do in Anaheim.
News of the Wells deal broke on a Friday evening in January, but that didn’t prevent many American and Canadian observers from reacting as one: How did the Blue Jays stumble upon someone — anyone — willing to assume every last loonie of that contract?
Yes, Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos found a taker for the four years and $86 million left on Wells’ contract. And by the way, he also ended up with catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera.
Particularly in the long term, this is a good deal for the Blue Jays.
The Angels . . . well . . . they did a great job hosting the All-Star Game last year, didn’t they?
No, Ricky Gervais didn’t call Arte Moreno to ask for advice on how to handle negative press. But maybe he should have. The Angels have received a series of unflattering reviews for their dull offseason. (I’m the guy who suggested that the franchise was operating as if it had been relegated to the Pacific Coast League.) Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Adrian Beltre, Rafael Soriano — any of them would have helped the Angels. All signed elsewhere.
Maybe the front office did a poor job of communicating with agents. Maybe the front office did a poor job of communicating with itself. Maybe the front office actually spent the winter in secret meetings about luring an NFL team back to Anaheim, with Jim Everett as the quarterback.
Whatever the reason, the Angels are an expensive team with deficiencies at third base, closer and the No. 5 starter’s spot. Wells will earn $23 million this year — money that general manager Tony Reagins could have used to address those weaknesses. I get that.
But I also believe Vernon Wells is a better fit for this team — at least in 2011 — than Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth.
Despite the well-publicized woes of Scott Kazmir and Fernando Rodney, the Angels’ chief deficiencies in 2010 were on offense. In one year, they went from the best average in the majors with runners in scoring position (.297) to the third-worst (.242). The Angels obviously missed Vladimir Guerrero, who left for Texas, and Kendry Morales, who reminded us to celebrate responsibly.
All of that makes Wells a good, sensible pickup. He has a career OPS of .813 with runners in scoring position. (And that number would have been higher with improved lineup protection.) Manager Mike Scioscia could bat him third, fourth or fifth and be confident in his ability to handle the job.
Consider, for a moment, the relative starting experience of each player as a No. 3 or No. 4 hitter:
Wells: 1,040 games.
Crawford: 195 games.
Werth: 47 games.
Crawford has never finished with 100 RBI in a season. Neither has Werth. Wells has done it three times — and could have made it four in 2010, if only the Blue Jays’ lineup had been reversed.
Jose Bautista finished third in the American League with 124 RBI — and he batted directly in front of Wells from late June until the end of the season.
“If you look at what Bautista did, honestly, Vernon didn’t have too many RBI situations,” said Pirates first baseman Lyle Overbay, who played in Toronto for the past five years. “A lot of times, there was no one on base when Vernon got up.”
Wells didn’t complain. He was just happy to be healthy, after undergoing surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left wrist following the 2009 season. The result was his best production in years — a .273 batting average, 31 home runs and 88 RBIs.
Basically, Wells demonstrated why he received that mammoth contract (seven years, $126 million) in the first place.
“I think he may even put up better numbers this year,” said right-hander Shaun Marcum, traded from Toronto to Milwaukee in December. “Getting off the turf is going to be huge for him. If you look back in history, Andre Dawson comes to mind. He had great years in Chicago in his mid-30s after leaving Montreal.”
Wells will face scrutiny with the Angels — he is the highest-profile addition for either team in the L.A. market this offseason — but one would think it’s liberating to leave a city where his identity was so closely tied to The Contract.
After all, the choice to leave was partially his. Wells has a no-trade clause, so Anthopoulos phoned him last Wednesday night to inform Wells that a deal was within reach. Wells was at the Lakers-Mavericks game in Dallas. “I pretty much missed the third and fourth quarter,” he said. “My heart was pounding, just thinking about everything that goes into it.”
Fortunately, he and a close friend were at the game with their wives. And it didn’t take long for his buddy to find the right word to say.