Wells has been pleasant surprise for Yankees
Veteran outfielder is off to a fast start with his injury-decimated new ballclub
CLEVELAND -- Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here, but the Yankees might have a pending outfield logjam due to the power and presence of Vernon Wells.
That sounds crazy, right?
The Yankees only took on Wells and his calamitous contract in a desperation attempt to plug a hole in the middle of the order after the Spring Training losses of Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira. And desperation being a particularly punitive quality in professional sports, the Yanks had to sign up for two years and about $14 million worth of Wells just to bridge the gap between Opening Day and Granderson's expected mid-May return.
A funny thing has happened, though, in these early days of 2013: Those supposedly punchless Yankees, besieged by free-agent and injury departures, hit an MLB-leading 15 homers in the season's first eight games. And Wells has done a good deal of the heavy lifting so far, hitting two homers and three doubles with four RBIs.
Yeah, yeah, it's a tiny sample size, as is every other statistical nugget we can unearth this time of year. But you note Wells' improved bat speed, mechanical tweaks and, above all else, sheer confidence in the state of his swing and you wonder, a little, if the Yanks might have stumbled upon something special here.
Wells sure feels that way.
"Putting this uniform on is a privilege," he said. "It will always be that way. Anyone who knows the game of baseball and respects the nature of it, this is the most storied franchise in almost all of sports. It will always carry that mystique that goes with the 'NY' on your hat."
Wells knows more about critique than mystique. The past two seasons, he served as the prime example of an overpaid athlete.
People in the industry were stunned that the Blue Jays were able to move the four years and $86 million remaining on Wells' contract when they traded him to Anaheim before the 2011 season. And while the Angels weren't able to move the full remainder of the $42 million owed to Wells in 2013 and '14, that they were able to dump any of that salary was hailed as a triumphant transaction at the end of spring camp.
Where Wells would have been an abnormally well-compensated part-time player with the Halos, he was granted an everyday, if temporary, opportunity with these injury-battered Yankees.
And though it's only been a few games, Wells has thus far lived up to Joe Girardi's late-spring proclamation that "there's a lot of good baseball left" in Wells' body.
"I've had the same approach since Day 1 of Spring Training," Wells said. "You try to do what you can offensively or defensively to help your team win ballgames. I've been around long enough and seen and done a lot of things in this game, but winning isn't one of them. That's my goal. Once you put this uniform on, the Yankees are synonymous with winning. That's the goal."
Wells had a goal of fixing what was ailing him after a 2012 season in which he got hurt early and lost his starting job to the unstoppable force that was Mike Trout. He knew the Angels, after the Josh Hamilton signing, did not have much of a role for him, so he figured a strong spring might attract interest elsewhere.
The story of Wells studying old video of himself for two months and noting the changes in his swing plane and contact point are only instructive to the point that his performance improves. But improve it has, in both the exhibition and regular-season results.
"The challenge," Wells said, "is to stay consistent with that approach each and every day."
What has gotten lost amid all the pessimism and snark surrounding Wells in recent years is the fact that his struggles have not changed his demeanor or the positive attributes he brings to a locker room. Teammates love him, and he's been incredibly generous in his charitable endeavors off the field.
Alas, none of that stuff matters in public perception when you're making $126 million and hitting .230. Wells, though, has done his best to tune out the negative noise.
"I've learned in life it's better to be a good person than a good ballplayer," Wells said. "People forget about what you do on the field five years from now. But if you impact lives on and off the field, that's what matters. You learn more about guys going through struggles than when they're doing well. You've got to be the same. Because once you're not, you become someone that people don't like. I've seen those guys, and you learn from those things. You try to be a good person. If you're a good dude, I want you to be on my team."
The Yankees are getting an idea of what it's like to have both the good dude and the good player. They hope it continues. If it does, it's going to lead to some difficult decisions when Granderson gets back. Where Wells has started strong, Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki have started slow, and it is in the Yanks' DNA (especially in their home park) to be a team that thrives on power production. Right now, Wells is providing it and silencing -- if only for a moment -- his many critics.
Not that that last part matters much to Wells.
"If you worry about trying to prove people wrong and make people happy," Wells said, "you're going to die trying to do that. It's impossible to do."
Instead, Wells is merely trying to demonstrate what remains possible when he takes the field. The early results are intriguing.