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Slightly above average

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It hasn’t sunk in yet. It won’t, until Spring Training. Until Vernon Wells isn’t in centre field for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Over the past few days, when I thought about the Blue Jays, and thought about centre field, Devon White and Vernon Wells were the only two names that came to mind. I missed the Lloyd Moseby era; I was too young. And for the life of me, I couldn’t remember who played in centre before Wells. In my mind, there was White, and then there was Wells. Devo, then Boo. And there would be Vernon, until his mammoth contract expired. Or so the entire universe, save for a couple of crazies in Anaheim, thought.

My point is: Two years of Otis Nixon, and three years of Jose Cruz, had completely faded from my memory.

Drew at Ghostrunner On First writes:

Ultimately, I think this town will forget Vernon Wells in a hurry. Despite logging thousands of innings in the middle of Rogers Centre, his legacy will not last. Other insane contracts will shove his from the memory, other affable & well-adjusted athletes will attract our undeserving scorn.

I don’t buy it. Wells won’t go the way of Nixon and Cruz. Partly because he was a Blue Jay for so goddamn long, and, as The Tao writes, partly because he did represent an era, a decade, one that’s now officially come to an end. And because of his bloody contract. Really, how much more insane can a contract get? There should be two larger-than-life portraits hanging on the walls of the Blue Jays’ front office: One of Vernon Wells, and one of B.J. Ryan. Those contracts, those mistakes, must never be forgotten.

Actually, make it three larger-than-life portraits. This one is a must.

Looking at Wells’ numbers, shit, he was far from great. Worse than I, obviously, a devout believer, remember him. Wells’ career 108 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) proves that, offensively, he was only slightly above average. Jesse Barfield, Carlos Delgado, Fred McGriff, John Olerud, Roberto Alomar, George Bell, Shawn Green, even Shannon Stewart and Rance Mulliniks, all sport higher weighted on-base averages (wOBA), and wRC+ averages, as Blue Jays than Wells. All of them.

Defensively, according to ultimate zone rating (UZR), in the history of the Blue Jays, only Carlos Delgado was a lesser fielder than three-time Gold Glove-winner Vernon Wells. And that blows my mind. I mean, I’m still, weeks later, having a hard time reconciling the fact Roberto Alomar, according to UZR, was a below-average second baseman. My entire worldview was shaped on the belief that Alomar was one of the greatest defensive second basemen. Ever. Now this, Wells’ -38.0 UZR rating? It’s hard to swallow. I can believe Joe Carter’s -32.0, and Russ Adams’ -25.1, career UZR ratings as Blue Jays. But not Alomar’s -26.0. Not Wells’ -38.0. I don’t want to believe I was deceived by my own young eyes.

Depressed by his numbers, I’d have to say no, Wells’ name and number don’t belong on the Level of Excellence. Had he played out his contract in Toronto, there’d probably be no debate; Wells would have owned too many team records not to go up. But now that he’s gone, it’s pretty obvious Wells wasn’t excellent. He was slightly above average. There are other, more worthy candidates to be honoured. Like Jimmy Key.

I’m going to be honest: I don’t know where the hell I’m going with this. I think I might have convinced myself that Drew’s right; perhaps Wells, to some extent, will be forgotten. Not forgotten like Otis Nixon, or Jose Cruz, but not remembered like Roy Halladay, or Carlos Delgado. And that’s how I wanted Wells to be remembered. Like Doc, and Carlos. But as much as I wanted him to be, he was never as good. And as has been pointed out, once he signed that contract, it became his legacy.

I can’t say, though, that I ever thought of Wells the baseball player as complacent, or comfortable. I always thought of V-Dub as someone who busted his ass day in and day out; someone who tried to lead by example. Who dove for balls when he probably shouldn’t have, and who tried to play through injuries, to the detriment of both himself and the team. I saw Wells’ even-keeled approach and attitude to success and failure as ideal for someone who tries to hit a baseball for a living.

After writing this post, I think I feel even more melancholy about Wells’ departure. Slightly above average. I don’t know, it just leaves more to be desired. Like Vernon Wells. With four years and $86 million left on his contract, I guess I never thought Wells and the Blue Jays would have unfinished business.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m ecstatic about said unfinished business. The Blue Jays gave up more cash when they traded Doc. And Wells’ departure puts the onus on Adam Lind, Aaron Hill, and Travis Snider. Vernon was never going to be one of the feared hitters in the Toronto lineup when they were finally ready to contend.

It’s a fascinating time to be a Blue Jays fan. Halladay and Wells traded in back-to-back off-seasons, along with another Opening Day starter. Yet baseball boners abound. There’s the Red Sox inquiring about the availability of Jose Bautista. Mike Napoli acquired and dealt in less than a week. Hey, I thought Napoli was a great fit for the Jays, too. But I like that J.P. Arencibia is being given his shot. Edwin Encarnacion, too; I just can’t quit the bastard.

Whether it’s to stock up on potential compensatory draft picks, or help support a very young starting pitching staff, Alex Anthopoulos has revamped the Toronto bullpen. I’ll take Octavio Dotel’s awful splits, the personable Jon Rauch, along with “criminally underrated relief pitcher” Frank Francisco, over Napoli, and, say, Manny Ramirez, and any relief pitcher signed to a long-term, rich contract. The bullpen wasn’t strong last season. Anthopoulos set out to improve it. The kicker: John Farrell. I can’t wait to see the new manager run the bullpen. Hell, the whole ball club.

Anthopoulos always maintained that the Blue Jays wouldn’t be active in free agency. That the Jays would look to improve through trades. Brett Lawrie for Shaun Marcum. Rajai Davis for a couple of arms. Wells for Napoli and Juan Rivera (who’s my starting right fielder, with Bautista at third base). Napoli for Francisco. It continues. There’s no point in speculating whether Anthopoulos is done, because on a Friday evening in January, he pulled off the unthinkable.

It all comes full circle. Slightly above average. That’s how I’d describe Vernon Wells. And how I’d describe, of late, the Toronto Blue Jays. Slightly above average isn’t good enough.

Image of a sleeping Blue Jay courtesy Kimberly Robyn.

Written by Navin Vaswani

January 26th, 2011 at 4:25 am

Thank you, Vernon …

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I think as a special tribute, the Vernon Wells Hatred Advisory System should be permanently set to “Low.” - @BlueJayHunter

Brilliant idea.

To the Toronto Blue Jays: Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera.

To the Anaheim Angels: The untradeable; Vernon Wells and the $86 million left on his contract. Along with no cash to pay for some of that $86 million, and the Vernon Wells Hatred  Advisory System. We won’t be needing it anymore.

I spent a lot of time over the past couple of years arguing, and writing lengthy blog posts, about  Wells. He was my guy. He was never going to live up to his contract, and I hated, absolutely hated, that he was booed so mercilessly at the Rogers Centre.

It’s bittersweet. I’ll miss Vernon Wells. I wish him nothing but success out in SoCal. By every single account, he is a fantastic human being. And I’ll argue until the end that he’s a damn good baseball player. Like me, like all of us, Wells was a lifer. But for Alex Anthopoulos, a living Greek God, to rid the Blue Jays of his contract, well, it’s nothing short of a celebration.

I’ll remember Wells as an ambassador for the Toronto Blue Jays. As an all-star. I’ll remember his home runs to left field, and the professional way in which he always rounded the bases. I’ll remember the Gold Gloves; all the incredible catches in centre field.  The grab that comes to mind right now is the one that at the time saved, albeit only briefly, Brandon Morrow’s no-hitter against Tampa Bay. I’ll remember Wells as a leader. And I’ll never, ever forget his 11th inning, walk-off home run against Mariano Rivera, only the greatest closer in baseball history.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll remember the infuriating middle-infield fly balls, the cursing that followed, and all the injuries, too. And I’m truly excited for the post-Wells Blue Jays era, and the — wait for it — financial flexibility it brings.

But one more time, for the road: I believe in Vernon Wells.

Image courtesy of my man Ian. Read and bookmark The Blue Jay Hunter. And buy a Meats Don’t Clash t-shirt.

Written by Navin Vaswani

January 21st, 2011 at 9:10 pm