As many of our faithful readers are already aware, we here at LA Angels Insider have been doing a series of player profiles on your 2013 Los Angeles Angels. The series has run for nine days so far. Nine players have been profiled. How fitting that Vernon Wells is number ten.
Why do you ask? Well, it’s funny really. Not only does the 34-year-old outfielder proudly wear the number “10” on his back, he does so – presumably – as the tenth offensive player in a sport where there are only nine starters. To put it bluntly, Wells is the tenth man. The extra. The odd man out. Or is he?
From Cowboy to Canuck.
Vernon Wells was born in Shreveport, LA, but raised in Arlington, TX not far from the ballpark that the division-rival Texas Rangers now call their home. As a small child, Wells wore cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat and wrastled snakes down by the waterin’ hole just for the hell of it*. Wells attended James Bowie High School where he excelled as a multi-sport athlete: playing both quarterback and outfielder for the Bowie Volunteers. Our good friend Wikipedia tells us Wells hit .565 with 7 HR and 20 RBI during his senior year and wound up signing a letter of intent to play baseball and football for the University of Texas at Austin. The soft-spoken cowboy from down Louisiana-way was set to become a Texas sports superstar. But Vernon Wells would never make it to college. He wouldn’t suit up as a wide receiver or step into the batters box for the Texas Longhorns. Instead, Wells would be selected fifth overall in the 1997 amateur draft. By the Toronto Blue Jays. And, as you all know, nothing says Texas quite like Canada!
Wells played his first minor league season for the St. Catherines Stompers at the ripe old age of eighteen. In 66 games, he hit .306/.377/.504 with 10 HR and 31 RBI for the St. Catherines, Ontario-based Blue Jays affiliate. Over the next four years, Wells split his time between the Hagerstown Suns, Dunedin Blue Jays, Knoxville Smokies, and Syracuse SkyChiefs where he hit a combined .300/.359/.476 with 57 HR and 264 RBI. He got his first shot at major league play as a late season call-up for the Blue Jays in 1999 when he hit .261 in 24 games with a HR, 8 RBI, and 5 doubles in 92 plate appearances. Following his performance, Baseball America named Wells the #4 prospect in all of baseball going into the 2000 season. He spent the majority of 2000 and 2001 with the SkyChiefs before being called back up to Toronto when the rosters expanded each September. Wells made the leap to the big leagues for good in 2002 when he served as an everyday outfielder for the Blue Jays. In 159 games, the rookie hit .275/.305/.457 with 23 HR and 100 RBI.
2003 was a career year for Vernon Wells. Clearly avoiding the sophomore slump, Wells hit .317/.359/.550 with career highs in HR (33), RBI (117), hits (215), and doubles (49). He was named to the A.L. All-Star team and received the Silver Slugger award. Wells was clearly turning out to be the player Baseball America had envisioned. Over the next three years in Toronto, Wells hit .282/.338/.493 with 83 HR, 270 RBI, and 104 doubles. He received three consecutive Gold Gloves and was once again named to the All-Star team in 2006. And then the Blue Jays decided to give him a 7-year, $126 million contract. (Backloaded, mind you. But we’ll get to that later.)
How “The $126MM Man” Came to be an Angel.
The year after receiving quite possibly the worst contract in the history of baseball, Wells managed to hit only .245 with 16 HR: his lowest totals since becoming an everyday player. During his last four years in Toronto, Wells hit .267/.321/.450 with 82 HR and 312 RBI. Compared to his first three season with the Blue Jays, Wells was averaging 8 less HR, 19 less RBI, and 27 less hits per season. So, what do you do with an overpaid player whose skills seem to be fading fast? You trade him to the first sucker who comes along. Enter: Tony Reagins.
After dropping the ball on Carl Crawford and balking at Adrian Beltre, Reagins hit the panic button on the 2011 off-season. On January 21, 2011, Wells was traded to the Angels for outfielder Juan Rivera and catcher Mike Napoli (who was almost immediately flipped to the Texas Rangers for relief pitcher Frank Francisco). It was a move that many believe hurt the Angels roster. Wells began his first season as a Halo hitting .183/.224/.303 with 4 HR, 13 RBI, and just 26 hits in 142 plate appearances by the All-Star Break. Things didn’t get much better for the new Angels outfielder who ended the year with career lows in AVG (.218), OBP (.248), and RBI (66). Halo fans everywhere were disappointed. And rightfully so. Here was a guy who was pulling in an average of $18 million a year and couldn’t even manage to hit his weight!
The general consensus was to trade him or bench, but neither choice seemed to be a plausible option. No team was crazy enough to take on a declining veteran with $63 million dollars still owed to him over the next three years. (Unless, maybe, Tony Reagins is running a team out there somewhere.) And the Angels brass clearly didn’t feel comfortable benching a player to whom they were paying $21 million per year. So, whether they liked it or not, Halo fans were stuck with Vernon Wells in left field for the 2012 season. And like it, they did not. Wells was hitting .244/.282/.422 on May 20, 2012 when he injured his thumb sliding into second base during a game against the Padres. The injury would require surgery and, much to the delight of frustrated Angel fans, Wells was forced to miss over two months of the season. When he returned, it became apparent that his playing time was somewhat limited as sophomore powerhouse Mark Trumbo had become something of a fixture in left field. Wells ended the season hitting just .230/.279/.403 with 11 HR and 29 RBI in an injury-shortened season when he played a career-low 77 games.
What to Expect in 2013.
Vernon Wells will clearly come into camp with something to prove this spring. The Angels’ acquisition of free agent slugger Josh Hamilton presumably sets the outfield as follows: Mike Trout in left field, Peter Bourjos in center field, and Hamilton in right field. Where does that leave Vernon? I believe the correct phrase is “riding the pine.” Without a miraculous performance during Spring Training and barring an unforeseen injury to the projected Angels line-up, Wells will undoubtedly find himself the odd man out once again. Just like last season when an abundance of outfielders – Trout, Hunter, Bourjos, Trumbo, even Kole Calhoun – led to Wells losing playing time, the stars don’t seem to be lining up in Vernon’s favor for the 2013 season.
But let’s never discount the stubbornness of one Michael Lorri Scioscia. Time after time, the Angels’ skipper has shown a sense of loyalty, compassion, and almost aggravating patience with his veteran players. As recent as last season, fans saw Scioscia continuously go to struggling former-greats like Bobby Abreu and Jason Isringhausen when more plausible options seemed quite easily and readily accessible (i.e. Mike Trout and Nick Maronde). Scioscia has had this type of relationship with Wells in past. How else would the declining veteran manage to rack up 131 games and 529 plate appearances in a season when he hit just .218?
I don’t want to start any problems here. I’m just saying don’t be surprised if Bourjos gets off to a slow start and, much like Reagins two years ago, Scioscia hits the panic button and calls on Vernon Wells. It wouldn’t be out of character for the skipper. Still, I can’t help but think it would be the wrong move to make. Bourjos needs playing time to improve his game. He needs experience to grow and mature as a player. He won’t get that by watching from the bench. (We all remember what happened with Reggie Willits.)
Bottom line: the Angels are stuck with Wells, his crappy numbers, and his outlandish contract. The realists have accepted that fact long ago. He’s not going anywhere. He’ll sit back and collect his money and take whatever playing time he can get over his next two years in Anaheim before riding off into the sunset. The only thing to do now is root for Bourjos to succeed. Because I don’t think Angel fans can handle another season of Wells as an everyday outfielder. And I know Scioscia is just itching to hit that panic button.
Follow film snob, Bigfoot believer, and L.A. Angels Insider Senior Columnist, Matthew James on twitter @MattyJay27.
*This information was unable to be verified, despite multiple‡ attempts to contact Mr. Wells’ representatives.
‡By “multiple attempts” I really mean “none.”