The Angels’ acquisition of Wells was looked upon as a strange consolation prize. The franchise was the object of some ridicule this offseason, as it couldn’t seem to land any of the free agents Los Angeles targeted. Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre all said, “Thanks, but no thanks” to an offer to come to Anaheim. (Can we please just call them the California Angels?)
But what the analysts failed to keep in mind was the liberation factor. Actor Bradley Whitford (Josh from The West Wing) called it “Shaking the Etch-a-Sketch.” Imagine what Wells is leaving behind.
He played in The Rogers Centre (can we call that SkyDome, please?) in front of lots of empty blue seats. John Farrell was about to become the sixth manager of his career.
The Blue Jays seem perpetually stuck in that middle ground of being good enough to be above .500 but not good enough to make a run at the Red Sox and Yankees (or Rays, for that matter.) And with that gigantic contract, Wells took the brunt of the blame of removing any payroll flexibility north of the border.
Of course, things like “emotion” and “feelings” and “acknowledging the players are human” is forbidden to many baseball experts. The answers must be in VORP, or OPS+ or WAR. Emotions are merely rumor, and the essence of the player can be distilled onto the back of their very cluttered baseball card.
But take the case of Wells, someone who by all accounts is a solid citizen and a good teammate. He seemed to be taking the fan favorite route when he signed a contract extension with the Blue Jays after the 2006 season, a year the Jays finished in second place.
The very act of signing up with the Blue Jays for the long run blew up in his face. As his production went down, the criticism ramped up. And no doubt the pressure increased with his desire to show everyone that he is worth the money. When the pressing Wells could not reach his All-Star levels again, and the team continued to play meaningless games, it is not unreasonable to say that a change for everyone was needed.
Now compare his situation in Toronto with where he is going to in Anaheim. Toronto averaged 20,000 fans a game, indoors on artificial turf, while the Angels drew the second-highest number of fans in the American League (only the Yankees drew more). He will be playing in front of 40,000 a game, on natural turf with lots of day games.
He will be in an outfield with Torii Hunter, electric youngster Peter Bourjos and, eventually, top prospect Mike Trout. He will be batting with the underrated Bobby Abreu and Kendrys Morales—once Morales comes back from his self-inflicted injury.
Forget having to carry the offense; he is just one of the players now. No longer the burden of the franchise, he can relax and play his game, doing so for a class organization and playing for a manager in Mike Scioscia that is quietly putting together a potential Hall of Fame resume.
And for the first time in his career, he will be playing for a legit contender who has a shot to win the division. While most people are picking either Oakland with their terrific young pitching or the defending American League champs in Texas, the Angels have a good shot. If their bats come through, they will be playing behind one of the best 1-2-3 combinations in the American League. Dan Haren will be there for the whole season to join Jared Weaver and Ervin Santana. Welcome to the pennant race, Mr. Wells!
Wells, who had a decent, if not MVP-caliber, season last year, has a weight off of his shoulders. There is no statistic for that. And no doubt even suggesting it will get ridiculed on the comment board below. But there have been many instances where a change in scenery sparked a dramatic turnaround in a career.
Dave Stewart toiled as a mediocre spot starter for the Dodgers, Rangers and Phillies before going to Oakland and blossoming into a Cy Young contender and World Series hero. Dennis Eckersley was a washed-up starter for the Cubs when he went to his native Oakland and became a Cy Young winner, MVP, ALCS MVP and Hall of Famer out of the bullpen.
Scott Brosius was stumbling with Oakland and Kenny Rogers was overwhelmed by the Yankees. They were swapped for each other, and Brosius exploded into an All Star and World Series MVP, while Rogers flourished everywhere he played except New York.
Bill Mueller was a fine third baseman but became a batting champ when he arrived in Boston. Terry Pendleton was a solid player for the Cardinals, but became an MVP and leader of the Cinderella Braves team of 1991. Bill Madlock was out of place and out of sorts in San Francisco, was dealt to Pittsburgh and regained his batting champ swing. And, of course, Roger Clemens found his stuff again when he went to Toronto, although his boost looks like it was more than just a change in scenery.
A few years ago on my blog, I proposed a three-team trade between the Giants, Cubs and Blue Jays, swapping overpaid gargantuan contracts, the idea being that Barry Zito, Alfonso Soriano and Wells were all talented but in miserable situations. And perhaps changing those situations would be enough to jolt an improvement. In the deal, I had Wells heading to Wrigley Field. But the Angels are a better fit.
There can be all sorts of projections made about the season, but one aspect that no statistician can quantify will be pertinent to Wells this year. He is going to lead the league in having fun. And players who relax, have pressure off of them and can just play their game tend to contribute big time.
Have fun, Vernon. And check out Disneyland while you’re there.
References & Resources
Sports Illustrated, Baseball Reference, Los Angeles Times
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