Posted by: Asher Roth | November 16, 2009

Let’s Discuss Vernon Wells…

Well, fellow Jays fans, it looks like we can all take a collective sigh of relief. No, Roy Halladay was not signed to a contract extension. No, Dustin McGowan hasn’t made a full recovery from his nagging, career-threatening injury.

But hey, the Blue Jays’ own 126 million dollar man, Vernon Wells, had successful wrist surgery on Friday. I know, thank goodness, right? I, for one, was very concerned that if V-Dub was out for extended time, Cito Gaston might accidentally write up line-ups of only eight players each night Vernon is out, since he seemed to have so much trouble altering his line-up this past season. I mean let’s face it, with Wells’ numbers this past season as brutal as they were, this seems to be the only reasonable explanation for his continual inhabitance of key spots in the batting order – his manager’s unfaltering confidence in him.

But this post isn’t about Cito and his love-affair with struggling veterans. We’ll have plenty of time to complain about that once the season starts.

This post is about V-Dub, and the questions surrounding just what Jays fans should think of him.

Vernon Wells broke his left wrist making a diving catch against the Indians in May of 2008. Now, someone drawing to somewhat of a simple conclusion here would guess that if Wells just had surgery on that wrist, then to some extent, that wrist has been bothering him for a year and a half. If that is the case, then why did he wait so long to mention this to anyone? Considering that it was the left wrist, the lead hand that he swings the bat with, this would be quite the important factor. If this wrist was bothering him in spring training, what were the doctors thinking, letting him play through it?

But here’s the thing. How badly could the wrist have been bothering him for the rest of 2008, when he hit .300 with 20 homers and 78 RBI in just 108 games? That means that if he had hypothetically played a full 162 games, he would have been on pace for 30 homers and 117 RBI – not too shabby. So, when did the wrist start bugging him?

If it bothered him all season, and he was aware that it was affecting his swing, or causing him consistent pain, or if there was any threat that playing through the injury would increasingly hurt him over the long term – why would he play 158 games?

Does Vernon perhaps feel pressured by his contract? Does he feel that if he sits out with injuries, then the fans and media will only pick on him more? Does he not realize that people tend to have more sympathy for a guy who sits out with the intention of getting better and performing at his best, than they do for a guy who decides to play the second most games of his entire career and put up, by far, his worst numbers?

And besides, didn’t he learn from that last time he played through a key injury, in 2007 with an injured shoulder, that no matter how determined you are to help the team out by heroically playing through an injury – at least, in Vernon’s case – that you’re hindering your team more than you’re helping them? That year, Vernon hit a disastrous .245 with only 16 homers and 80 RBI in 584 AB (still, we should note, better production than he had this season).

But here’s the important question: what should we, the loyal Jays fans, think of all this? Can you really fault the guy for wanting to play to earn his dollars? For wanting to do all they can to contribute? Didn’t we give A.J. Burnett a hard time for sitting out with injuries? (Or was that just J.P. Ricciardi?) Plus, Vernon did all he could to help out, stealing an impressive 17 bases out of 21 attempts – his highest total since 2006.

This all comes back to Vernon, and his relationship with his coaches. Did he tell them that he was playing hurt? If Cito Gaston had known that Vernon was unable to put up clean-up worthy numbers, then why was he playing at all, much less hitting in such important spots in the line up? Clearly there was a lack of communication here.

If, in fact, Vernon decided to play through his injury, merely for the fact that he didn’t want to have to sit out, and didn’t tell any of his coaches why he was playing so poorly, then we could say he was taking advantage of his coach’s loyalty for his own personal enjoyment. Pretty selfish.

Then, we also must consider that Vernon could have made some sort of adjustment to his game, in an attempt to maximize his abilities as a run-producer. What I mean here is that once he realized that his wrist was affecting his power stroke, perhaps he should have focused more on his ability to drive runners home any way he could. Did he do that? Well, the fact that he only hit five sacrifice flies all year is one way to answer. The fact that when he batted with none out and a runner on second this season, the runner only came in to score 18% of the time is another.

And then there were his measly 15 home runs. It’s kind of impossible to gauge just when his wrist was bothering him, because he batted poorly with steady consistency throughout the season. Wells hit at least two home runs each month (and never hit more than three), including a nice stretch between May 6 and June 20 where he hit none. Of these 15 home runs, ten of them were solo-shots, and none of them were hit after the sixth inning.

The numbers speak for themselves. Maybe Vernon played hurt this year, or maybe he had unnecessary surgery so the fans would think he had an excuse for having the worst productive year of his major league career. While this is unlikely, I still am not of the opinion that fans should dismiss this season under the excuse that he was injured. Injury or not, that gives no excuse for a failure to adjust to the injury, or his complete lack of an ability to hit in the clutch – an issue he has had for his entire career. And besides, Albert Pujols had elbow surgery at the end of this season – after playing 160 games, smacking 47 dingers (the second-highest total of his career) and driving in 135. Clearly, some guys can play hurt.

Unfortunately, as he has now proven multiple times, Vernon Wells is not one of them.

Many questions about him will be answered this coming season, when he will arguably be in perfect health. His power numbers will certainly be placed under the microscope, as will his ability to hit in the clutch. The key to his success will depend on where he bats in the lineup. If he hits behind Adam Lind or Aaron Hill, then maybe his numbers will improve if he sees better pitches.

Or, maybe he’ll continue to suck, and earn copious amounts of cash to do so.



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