Now a Yankee, Wells looks to show his stripes
TAMPA, Fla. -- When last season ended, Vernon Wells began the process of figuring out why things had gone so wrong. He'd been one of baseball's rising stars for the first five years of his career, making the American League All-Star team twice and finishing eighth in the AL Most Valuable Player Award balloting in 2003. Wells won three Gold Gloves for his play in center field.
Beginning around the time the Blue Jays signed him to a seven-year, $126 million contract extension after the 2006 season, Wells began a steady decline in production. The Blue Jays traded him to the Angels after the 2010 season, and his slide continued. After hitting .230 last season, he went to work.
Wells studied hours of video to compare his swing from the last couple of seasons against his best seasons. He immediately saw the difference.
"You get caught up in hitting home runs and seeing how far you can hit 'em and your swing changes," Wells said Tuesday afternoon as he prepared to play his first Spring Training game for the Yankees.
And that was the focus of Wells' offseason. To shorten his swing. To hit the ball to right field. To stop worrying about home runs.
"It was a time to kind of reflect on a lot of things and digest a lot of things that took place over the last couple of years," Wells said. "When I saw my contact point over the last couple of years, I was far too out in front. Everything through the course of the offseason was hitting the right side of the cage. Doing that will allow me to still use that field with authority."
It's impossible to know if Wells can ever again be what he once was. He's 34 now and trying to reverse years of bad habits. But he has had a nice Spring Training, hitting .361 for the Angels with a 1.112 OPS. Spring Training statistics can mean almost nothing, but for Wells, they provide a flicker of hope that he still has something left in the tank.
"It's been over the last four or five years," Wells said. "You get away with it at times. You get away with it in Toronto, just because if you hit a ball well, it's going to go out. You start trying to hit fourth and fifth decks instead of just worrying about getting hits. It's been a learning experience the last couple of years, but I'm glad I went through it. You get a chance to correct some wrongs.
"These last three weeks have been a matter of trying to stay inside the ball and hit the ball hard. It's just a byproduct of taking good swings and keeping my hands short. You live, and you learn. Now I've just got to be consistent with this approach. When I am, I'm a much better player than I have been the last couple of years."
Someone wonders if the big contract had changed the way Wells played, either his preparation or something else.
"You just go out and play the game as you have since you're a kid," he said. "It's fun to write about. You hear those things from time to time. I said from the beginning, no one's worth that kind of money. It's what the market is at the time. You can catch the market at a good time. You can catch the market at a bad time. I caught the market at a good time. I go out and play the game the same way as I did when I was a little kid growing up. You always respect the game. Enjoy your time in uniform."
On Wells' first day as a member of the Yankees, he was upbeat about the whole thing. He said when the Angels asked him to approve the trade on Sunday, he began getting excited, and not just because the right field at Yankee Stadium -- the place he should be exploiting -- is huge.
"Just the history," Wells said. "The names that are in this clubhouse. This is special. This is baseball. This is the center of it all. This is a fun way for things to go toward the end of my career. There's no other place like it."
Wells joins the Yanks at a time when Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are all injured, and general manager Brian Cashman has scoured the waiver wire for help.
The Yankees still believe they can contend. They need some of their injured players to return and play at a high level. They need their pitching staff -- still one of baseball's best -- to stay healthy.
And they need their new veterans -- Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner and now Wells -- to be productive. If all those things happen, the Yanks will still have a chance.
For now, the goal is to get Wells onto the field and let him begin this next chapter of his career.
"It's an exciting place to be," Wells said. "There's great expectations and great responsibility. To have that and be in this uniform, I couldn't ask for anything more."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.