Saturday, January 22, 2011

So Long, Vernon

Vernon Wells has been traded.

Those are five words I never expected to see in that particular sequence. Ever.

Perhaps that's because I have drastically underestimated Alex Anthopoulous. But not likely. No, it's reasonable to presume those words would never be placed in that order because of Wells' monstrosity of a contract which sees him making $86 million over the next four years.

Although Wells' tenure in Toronto will forever be regarded as the paragon of egregious excess that defined the J.P Ricciardi era, contract aside, Wells was one of the few bright spots on a mediocre team for more than a decade.

For all the criticism Wells received -- and there was certainly no shortage -- the 32-year-old was, at his best, an All-Star calibre hitter who played Gold Glove defense, and at his worst, an average major-league player whose hustle seemed, at times, questionable. He also has longevity on his side. Wells is the franchise leader in at-bats (5470), and sits second in long-balls (223) and RBI (813).

Additionally, offensive schizophrenia notwithstanding, Wells was durable. From 2002 to 2010, Wells averaged 148 games player per season, which for a centre-fielder whose knees were victimized on a daily basis by the artificial turf of Skydome/Rogers Centre is nothing short of remarkable. For the record, that's more than fellow contemporaries Torii Hunter and Carlos Beltran over that span. While his offensive production was certainly volatile, and at times horribly frustrating, he could alway be counted on to patrol centre-field dutifully.

Was the contract justifiable? Certainly not. But I'm not the one who has to write him a cheque every other week, and neither are you.

Nonetheless, Wells will likely be remembered for how his price tag tied the organization's hands financially, preventing Toronto from fielding a contender sooner, rather than the three-time All-Star and Gold-Glover that he was.

Don't get me wrong, that will certainly factor into how I remember V-Dub, too, but I also have many fond memories of the guy hitting in front of Carlos Delgado -- forming one of the more formidable 3-4 tandems in the bigs for a brief time -- who led the majors in hits in 2003 and regularly awed fans with acrobatic defensive gems.

However you choose to remember him, the Vernon Wells era in Toronto has, rather unceremoniously, concluded. In addition to the huge financial burden that's been lifted through this deal, the Jays also netted catcher Mike "Power Nap"oli and outfielder Juan Rivera from the Angels.

Rivera will likely take the vacant outfield spot Wells' departure created, alongside Travis Snider in right and newly-acquired speedster Rajai Davis taking Wells' old role in centre. The 32-year-old is only one year removed from an impressive .287/25/88 line through 138 games, and the Blue Jays are hoping he can compensate for the offensive production the team will lose through dealing Wells.

Napoli's presence, on the other hand, is a tad more complex, as he will surely muddle the catching situation in Toronto this summer. With rookie J.P. Arencibia tentatively slated to handle full-time catching duties, Napoli's role remains quite ambiguous, although he is likely to see time at 1B and DH in addition to his currently undefined role behind the dish. The 29-year-old is coming off a career year in which he set highs in games played (140), hits(108), homeruns (26), RBI (68), and extra-base hits (51).

But those guys are, for all intents and purposes, consolation prizes. The real return in this deal is financial flexibility this team hasn't had in years. It frees AA to pursue top-tier free agents after the 2011 season, and signifies that the rebuilding process is well underway.

This is a significant day, Blue Jays fans. It is the first day in more than a decade that Vernon Wells is not on the Blue Jays' payroll. The future that the front-office keeps talking about is quickly approaching.

Adios Vernon. Whenever someone takes a violent swing on the first pitch of an at-bat, it'll be you that I'm reminded of.