Wells anticipates spreading wings with Angels
After subpar debut season with club, veteran eyes '12 rebound
ANAHEIM -- In the last few days of the worst season of his distinguished Major League career, Vernon Wells seemed surprisingly upbeat.
It was as if he'd already put the ordeal in his rearview mirror and was confident he would not let it happen again in 2012.
"I really like our lineup, our team," said Wells, who turns 33 on Dec. 8. "I think we can do some really good things with this group. It took awhile before we got to know each other -- there was a lot of change this year. We have a good blend of power and speed, young guys and older guys like Torii [Hunter], Bobby [Abreu] and myself. I think we're all looking forward to having Kendrys [Morales] come back and giving us another weapon.
"With the young guys getting better with experience and the veterans having better seasons, I think we've got the capabilities of being a really good lineup. Now that we've gotten to know each other, what we can do as a unit, I look for some special things."
Wells plunged to career lows across the board in his debut season on the West Coast after spending a decade in Toronto as the Blue Jays' center fielder and centerpiece, a three-time American League All-Star and three-time Gold Glove Award winner.
A .274 career hitter, Wells' 2011 average dropped to .218. Just as deep were his falls in on-base percentage (.323 to .248) and slugging (.469 to .412). His .660 OPS was far removed from his .792 career number.
"We need Vernon to be the hitter he can be and has been in the past," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We're confident he'll have a good year for us."
The only offensive category where Wells met his standard was in home runs, with 25. His career average for a 162-game season is 26. But he fell in runs batted in, from a career norm of 93 in a season to 66.
"I got away from what I need to do," Wells said. "I was trying to hit the ball 500 feet, when you don't have to do that. I never thought of myself as a home run hitter, but I got caught up in home runs. I never used to try to hit home runs. They came when I elevated line drives."
Returning to his natural mindset as a line-drive hitter pounding the gaps for doubles, he feels, will enable him to return to his former production level.
"Next year," Wells said, "you're going to see the real me."
The words came calmly yet forcefully, with conviction.
Wells made one significant transition -- from center to left field -- smoothly, joining Peter Bourjos and Hunter in one of the game's premier defensive outfields. According to the numbers crunched by Fangraphs.com, Wells, with an 11.7 Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games, was the second-best defensive left fielder in the Majors behind the Yankees' Brett Gardner.
Not nearly as seamless was the larger transition. A move of this nature, where everything is new, never is easy for even the most emotionally stable of players.
Wells wasn't the only big-name, big-money performer to struggle in the move to a new home in 2011.
Carl Crawford, the Tampa Bay star spirited away by Boston in free agency for seven years and $142 million, fell flat, batting .255 with only 11 homers and 18 steals.
Neither Jayson Werth, who signed a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals, nor Adam Dunn, who signed with the White Sox for four years and $56 million, lived up to his billing. Werth (.232 BA, .719 OPS) and Dunn (.159, .569 OPS) had dismal seasons.
Wells, who came to the Angels in exchange for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera, has three years and $63 million left on his contract.
Wells commended the Angels for having the trust in him to take on that contract when the deal was made. He would love to show owner Arte Moreno and the baseball world at large it was not a mistake, early returns notwithstanding.
Wells has a history of rebounding from down years. In 2008, he hit .300 with an .840 OPS after batting .245 with a .706 OPS in 2007, dealing with a shoulder injury. He had a groin issue with the Angels, but this is a guy who has played at least 154 games in seven seasons and visited the disabled list just four times in his career.
Hunter had warned him of the frustration of watching the marine layer at Angel Stadium knock down potential home runs in the early months of the season. But Wells had to experience it to understand how demoralizing it can be.
"It was ... different," he said, grinning. "Torii told me it was one of the things he had to get used to -- along with the travel."
Playing for Toronto, Wells' flights were an hour to three hours, other than the occasional West Coast trip. With the Angels, in an oddly-shaped division stretching across several time zones, he found himself spending many more hours on planes.
"It's definitely something new," Wells said, "but no complaints at all. I've enjoyed it here."
Excluding, of course, the hitless and fitless nights.
Wells has played 1,524 Major League games in 13 seasons without a postseason appearance.
Having seen what it meant to good buddy Michael Young of the Rangers to experience the postseason crucible the past two autumns, Wells thirsts for firsthand knowledge of what he calls "meaningful baseball in October."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.