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Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Wells running dry in an awful big way

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells plays baseball the way it's meant to be played. He runs hard through the bag on every ground ball, habitually throws to the right base, and stays out of the trainer's room unless absolutely necessary. His teammates like him, opponents respect him, and multiple Toronto charities are grateful for his largesse.

Wells also has a .687 combined on base-slugging percentage this season. That's a tick below the .690 OPS sported by Magglio Ordonez, whose recent benching caused a stir in Detroit and prompted a spirited exchange between Jim Leyland and Scott Boras over precisely when a six-time All-Star should be ordered to grab some pine.

Vernon Wells
Vernon Wells is in the midst of the second season of a seven-year, $126 million contract with Toronto.

When Wells went deep against Washington's Ross Detwiler on Saturday, he ended a streak of 41 games and 160 at-bats without a home run. But even a productive week against National League East pitching has left Wells statistically impaired; as in, a .248 batting average with six homers in 290 at-bats.

Some people around the Jays are amazed by his restraint. During a recent 0-for-21 funk, Wells never chucked a helmet, cursed a blue streak or spit a sunflower seed in anger. Whenever teammates were ready to duck for cover, he stopped short.

"I know it's eating at him, but he's trying to maintain his composure," said Toronto hitting coach Gene Tenace. "I just think it's his personality. You are what you are and you can't be a phony about it. Me, I'm just the opposite. My Italian heritage would have come out, and I'd have snapped a long time ago."

Rather than vent, Wells attacks the problem with the diligence of a lab chemist studying microbes. He tinkers with his hand positioning, fiddles with weight shifts and dissects video in search of "Eureka!" moments. He has faith in the power of hard work and positive thinking, even if his struggles are putting a strain on his greatest attribute.

"I'm a patient person, but obviously this is testing my patience a little bit," Wells said. "This has been one of the most frustrating periods I've had, because I want to do so much to help this team win. But from an outsider's perspective, you're not going to see what's deeply inside me."

Wells' travails make for an intriguing test case in selective media overkill. When Red Sox DH David Ortiz was homer-less in mid-May, he was the target of incessant speculation in Boston and beyond. Did Ortiz's power outage stem from problems with his wrist, his knee, his eyes or his lack of a swagger? Did he miss Manny Ramirez, or was he really 36 years old instead of 33? Naturally, with no evidence other than Ortiz's statistical decline, the performance-enhancer freight train also chugged its way into the picture.

Wells, in comparison, has gotten a pass. His performance this season has been overshadowed in part by the ridiculous run of injuries to the Blue Jays' pitching staff. But he's Exhibit A that there's an advantage to playing in Toronto besides the terrific ethnic cuisine.

Blue Jays first baseman Kevin Millar, who spent three years in Boston, said a struggling star is bound to get more breathing room while tucked away in Canada. No surprise there.

"In this market, guys are very fortunate when they go through struggles, because it's not magnified by any means," Millar said. "You throw up a 1-for-10 in Philadelphia, New York or Boston, and it's the end of the world.

"I'm not saying any struggle is easy, because Vernon is definitely trying to cure his thing and get out of it. But you're definitely fortunate that you're in another country and you're playing for the Blue Jays and you've got three beat writers instead of 40."

Vernon Wells I'm a patient person, but obviously this is testing my patience a little bit. This has been one of the most frustrating periods I've had, because I want to do so much to help this team win.

-- Vernon Wells

On a more cosmic level, some pressures are self-imposed. It's been 2½ years since the Blue Jays hitched their wagon to Wells with a seven-year, $126 million contract, and it's hard to say how that's affected his psyche and his approach to the game.

Although Wells' deal seems wildly extravagant in hindsight, it reflected the state of the game in the winter of 2006. In a span of five weeks, Alfonso Soriano agreed to an eight-year, $136 million contract with the Cubs, Wells committed to Toronto and Barry Zito signed for seven years and $126 million with San Francisco. No wonder agents and the folks in the Players Association offices reflect upon that winter as "the good old days."

Have the Blue Jays gotten equal value for their investment? Regardless of how wonderful a person Wells is, it's tough to make that claim.

Since Opening Day 2007, Wells has a slugging percentage of .429 -- the same as Chris Duncan and Rickie Weeks. Among the players who are better: Melvin Mora, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Chris Snyder and Ronnie Belliard.

Over that same span, Wells has an on-base percentage of .317 -- the same as Jody Gerut and Brad Ausmus.

In fairness, injuries have put a crimp in Wells' game. In 2007, he played much of the season with a left shoulder injury that necessitated surgery. Last year, he fractured his left wrist making a sliding catch against Cleveland and visited the disabled list for a second time with a left hamstring strain. Everyone says Wells is healthy this year, but he received a cortisone shot in his left wrist late in spring training. If it's bothering him, he won't say.

An American League scout who's seen the Blue Jays thinks Wells' biggest problem is his tendency to chase balls outside the zone. "I've seen him give away way too many at-bats," the scout said. Although Tenace is more diplomatic, he doesn't dispute that sentiment.

"Players talk about 'mechanics this' and 'mechanics that,'" Tenace said, "but it's tough to put a good swing on a bad pitch. I think that's one of Vernon's main problems. Expanding the zone. Trying to do too much. He's human."

Wells wouldn't be the first player to feel a crushing sense of responsibility from a big contract. Two summers ago, Zito talked about the strange feeling that came from pitching "with a number on my forehead."

The money issue isn't going to abate anytime soon in Toronto. Wells' contract is heavily back-loaded, so the big financial hit is still to come for the Jays. He'll make $12.5 million in 2010, $23 million in 2011 and $21 million in each of the final three years of his deal.

Wells also has a full no-trade clause, and he'll be approaching age 36 when the contract winds down in 2014. Just imagine how he's going to feel when people say his money is standing in the way of Roy Halladay's signing a long-term deal in Toronto.

Perhaps it's time to come to grips with reality: Is Wells a very good player going through a rough stretch, or is he destined to never approach his best season in 2003? Wells set single-season highs for home runs (33), RBIs (117), doubles (49), batting average (.317), total bases (373) and OPS (.909) at age 24.

Now he's 30, and appearances notwithstanding, he takes every 0-fer and bad day at the office to heart.

"I've been criticized through my career for not exploding when things are going bad," Wells said. "But by the same token, when things are going well, you're not going to see me jumping around for joy, either. When the good times are here, you have to ride them for as long as you can. And when the bad times are here, you have to try and be the same person."

As Millar likes to point out, a bad month or two doesn't make a ballplayer a bad human being.

"Vernon cares," Millar said. "Vernon tries. He's busting his butt every day, and he's so talented, he will come out of this and he'll go one month and hit 10 home runs."

Tenace played for the great Oakland teams in the 1970s and saw all kinds -- from a stoic Joe Rudi to a bombastic Reggie Jackson to the ultra-intense Sal Bando, who would carry his bat through airport terminals and sleep with it when he was going through slumps.

"A lot of great players in this game have struggled at some point in their career," Tenace said. "I've seen Reggie Jackson struggle. But the great ones, and I think Vernon falls in that category, find a way to come out of it. And they usually come out of it big."

The Blue Jays are waiting patiently for Mount Vernon to erupt. So is he.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.