After the 2006 season the Blue Jays found themselves in a difficult position. They had finished the season at 87-75, only the second time in the previous six years that they had finished with a winning record. They also finished second in the AL East, the first time they’d finished above third since their back-to-back World Series wins in 1992 and 93. At least for the moment things looked optimistic.
Yet J.P. Ricciardi knew what lay in the team’s future. The Red Sox would surely reload for the 2007 season, making it difficult for the Jays to contend. Still, they had a roster full of promise. On the offensive side, perhaps no player was of more value to the team than Vernon Wells. He led the 2006 Blue Jays in wOBA while playing center field, no small feat for a team that scored five runs per game. Yet he might not have been a Blue Jay for much longer.
With over five years’ service time under his belt after the 06 season, Wells was eligible for free agency after the 2007 season. Even though he remained under contract for one more season, rumors already began to swirl that the Rangers would pursue him aggressively. It was further thought that Wells, an Arlington native, would jump on the opportunity to play in front of his hometown crowd. That would have been a disaster for the Blue Jays franchise.
Knowing what was at stake, Ricciardi signed Wells to a seven-year, $126 million contract extension. Since Wells was under contract for the 2007 season, the deal was set to run through 2014. At the time it was the sixth largest contract in baseball history, topping the seven-year, $119 million contract Carlos Beltran signed with the Mets in 2005. The deal was certainly a risk; since becoming a full-time player in 2002, Wells topped a .335 wOBA just three times, and produced at a level that would justify the contract’s $18 million AAV just once.
Wells’s fall from grace is well documented, and I’ll spare the torturous details. He has gotten off to a hot start this season, though, going 6 for 13, including four home runs, with two walks and a HBP. Coincidentally, that production came at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, where Wells would have played his home games had he signed there as a free agent after the 2007 season. (And, considering the Rangers’ failed pursuit of Torii Hunter that off-season, it stands to reason that they would have indeed been in, perhaps aggressively, on Wells.) It might have made you wonder what might have been had he ended up signing there.
Strangely, though, Wells has not hit well at Rangers Ballpark during his career. Because of the unbalanced schedule he has played a maximum of six games there per season, and oftentimes it’s only three. Even with his performance over the past three games he still sports a .327 wOBA. Heading into that series the number was, understandably, a bit more pathetic, just .282. That’s what happens when, in a small sample, you hit more home runs during one series than you do in your entire history at a ballpark. To that end, Wells’s four homers in the series best the three he hit there in 167 PA from 2001 through 2009.
With such small samples, it’s difficult to pick out anything significant in baseball’s first few weeks. Performances turn around pretty quickly, and we’ll see the number of players with .500+ wOBAs come down over the next few weeks — the next few days, even. No player better exemplifies this than Wells. We know that he won’t keep up this pace, but by hitting this well in the season’s first series, which included a couple of game-changing hits, he’s given Blue Jays fans a reason for optimism. And maybe made Rangers fans wonder what might have been, had Wells reached free agency after the 2007 season.
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