Wells takes on leadership role
After subpar season, veteran looks to bounce back in 2010
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Vernon Wells stood in the outfield on one of the practice diamonds at the Blue Jays' spring complex and soaked up his first day in camp on Wednesday. As the veteran center fielder looked around and saw the youthful faces that surrounded him, reality set in.
"I'm the old guy around here now," Wells said with a laugh.
There is a very different feel to this Spring Training for the Blue Jays. That is especially true for Wells, who is the longest-tenured player with the team now that Roy Halladay is with the Phillies. Toronto's roster is young and the competition for spots on the Opening Day roster is wide open, making this a time of uncertainty and transition.
More than ever, Wells believes it is his responsibility to step up as the clubhouse leader.
"It's one of the first times that I've felt like this is my team," Wells said.
The Blue Jays made it clear that they trusted Wells to be one of the club's leaders by handing him a seven-year contract extension worth $126 million prior to the 2007 season. Over the past few years, though, Wells said he felt like the leadership duties were split between himself and Halladay, and understandably so.
That dynamic immediately changed when Halladay was traded to the Phillies, removing his renowned work ethic for the younger Blue Jays to follow. Wells, who is coming off a frustrating season that was hindered by injury, believes it his turn to be The Man, to be a source of information and to set an example for the up-and-coming players.
"It's a role that I'm looking forward to," Wells said. "For me, it's pretty easy. You expect guys to just go out and play hard. That's my point to everybody. I say, 'There's one thing you can control, and that's going out and playing the game the right way and respecting the game.' Things will work out after that."
Wells knows that everything starts with improving his performance on the field.
Toronto handed Wells the lucrative contract after his impressive All-Star showing in 2006, when he hit .303 with 32 homers and 106 RBIs and also captured his third consecutive American League Gold Glove Award. In the three years since receiving the extension, Wells has suffered from various injuries and has combined to hit just .265 with an average of 17 homers and 75 RBIs per season.
Last year, Wells' struggles at the plate persisted in what ended up being arguably the worst offensive season of his career. He hit .260 with 15 home runs and 66 RBIs, posting a .311 on-base percentage and a .400 slugging percentage. Wells did appear in 158 games -- his most since 2003 -- but it was revealed after the season that he played with a left wrist problem all year.
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"It is what it is," Wells said. "You learn from it. I think it's better to learn from struggles. You're not going to really learn much from succeeding all the time. You go through those struggles, and the way you react to them and the way you come back from them will define who you are."
On Nov. 12, Wells underwent surgery to repair cartilage damage in the wrist, which he initially fractured during a diving catch in Cleveland in May of the 2008 season. Last spring, Wells began feeling discomfort in the wrist again, and he received two cortisone shots and was taking anti-inflammatory medicine throughout the course of the season.
During the year, Wells labored through stiffness and discomfort, but he did not suffer from the type of pain that might have led Toronto to believe surgery was required.
"If his hands bothered him last year, he didn't tell us," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "I can understand why he struggled."
Roughly three weeks into the offseason, after Wells stopped taking medication to ease the discomfort in his hand, he began to feel pain in his wrist again. The center fielder said it hurt to the point that he had trouble turning the steering wheel on his car while driving. That is when Wells decided to alert the Jays' medical staff, leading to the operation.
That development seemed to provide an explanation for Wells' poor performance in 2009, but he refuses to use the injury as an excuse.
"Everybody plays through different things," Wells said. "I'd rather be on the field and try to do what I can as much as possible -- no matter what injury you have. Obviously, it's frustrating from an outsider's point of view and it's frustrating from my standpoint, because I want to be better than I was. You just use it as fuel to get better."
Beyond his offensive issues, Wells has also heard criticisms about his defense in center field. Wells smiled and shrugged when asked about the suggestion that he has lost a step in center.
"Apparently there's mathematics that can go along with catching a fly ball or something," Wells said. "I don't know. Ask the pitchers that are on the mound and ask the guys that are hitting in the box, and they'll answer that question for you."
The 31-year-old Wells is entering his 12th season in the big leagues and arrived at the Bobby Mattick Training Center looking slightly trimmer. Beyond trying to eat better, though, Wells said he actually reduced his offseason workload. In the past, Wells believes he pushed himself too hard leading up to Spring Training, leaving him gassed later in the regular season.
The wrist surgery over the winter forced Wells to delay the type of training he has done in previous years, and he thinks that was a blessing in disguise. Wells said he focused more on hitting than anything else this offseason, trying to regain the hand strength and form he had a few years ago.
Gaston said this week that he plans on slotting Wells back into the cleanup spot to begin the season. That is something Wells enjoyed hearing.
"I want to be there," Wells said. "I want to get back to doing what I'm accustomed to doing, and that's helping this team win and driving in runs. Obviously, Cito knows if I'm where I need to be, I'm going to help this team win games."
Gaston also believes that Wells is in a position to become more of a leader than he has been in the past. The manager said that taking on that responsibility is not always as easy as it sounds, though.
"You've always got to remember, you lead by example," Gaston said. "When you're going to lead, you have to be ready to deal with a lot of things. If you have some bad nights, you're going to have to handle it the right way. If you have some good nights, you're going to have to handle it the right way.
"Leadership is tough to do. Some people are leaders, some people are not."
Wells remembers viewing former Blue Jay Carlos Delgado as a leader. The center fielder knows the younger players will now look to him in the same way.
"Things change in a hurry," Wells said. "I remember being here and Carlos and those guys being here, and I was a young guy trying to make the ballclub. Now it's completely changed. It's fun. It's a fun role to be in, because guys look at you to do the right things and how to do things and how to be successful at this level.
"It's a learning process, and it's going to be fun going through it with these guys."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.