Vernon Wells hears the boos but he doesn't feel the need to justify his contract any more now than he did before Alex Rios was dumped on the Chicago White Sox.
"When you sign that kind of deal, it's going to come with it," Wells said last night, before batting practice in the Bronx. "You can never justify the amount of money anybody makes in this game. It's not my job to explain or justify it. I just need to go out and play the game of baseball the way I have ever since I was a little kid."
Wells already was the primary target of Toronto Blue Jays fans for his uninspired offensive production and, even before Rios' departure this week, Wells's contract (which has $107-million left on it) was viewed as the major stumbling block to contention. He's Scottie Pippen on a team that will never have a Michael Jordan. He is the new Carlos Delgado. It has made the centre fielder almost untradeable, and right now the Blue Jays' only hope is that Wells becomes so uncomfortable in Toronto that he exercises his out-clause after 2011 - a near-impossibility given the money he'd be leaving on the table.
The good news is that Wells's contract is the only one that the Blue Jays have insured. So that would mitigate any catastrophic loss because of injury. Still, on too many nights the bigger catastrophe is having Wells in the lineup.
Rios's departure seems to have been met by a collective shrug in the clubhouse. Wells tried to sound like he was slightly shocked, but it was a half-hearted attempt. Aaron Hill admitted the financial logic was clear cut. Roy Halladay, while making clear that he has enough to worry about without deciphering messages from ownership or management, said he was not at all surprised once word got out that Rios was on waivers. (There is a sense of detachment to Halladay that was not previously noticeable.) Manager Cito Gaston barely mentioned Rios in his pregame briefing.
The Blue Jays' financial inadequacies and ownership's lack of gumption and ambition have been brought into focus this year by the manner in which the New York Yankees have re-established themselves as the power in the American League East. Even people who anticipated the Yankees being even more brazen than normal because of the extra revenue generated by their new ballpark were startled when general manager Brian Cashman followed up signing free-agent pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett for $243-million (all currency U.S.) by landing switch-hitting first baseman Mark Teixeira from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Teixeira is in the first year of an eight-year, $180-million contract and is a front-runner for American League Most Valuable Player. He could be doing that in the uniform of the Boston Red Sox, since they were the other club courting him.
"He has to be at the front of the MVP picture," teammate Johnny Damon said on Sunday. "Now that I've seen him play every day, he's just a much better player than I thought. He runs the bases very well and fields everything. You watch him, and whatever it is he's doing that's part of the game he's doing it with hustle."
The last time the Detroit Tigers played the Yankees, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said it was a "nightmare" trying to match up with a lineup composed of four switch-hitters (Teixeira, Melky Cabrera, Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher) and left-handed batters who handle left-handed pitching. The Yankees can run out a lineup in which every player has double digits in homers. "It's not just the length of their lineup," Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "It's the depth. You look at Hideki Matsui and Swisher: They could each get close to 600 at-bats and hit 30 homers."
It used to be said of the Yankees when they were winning World Series that one of their real strengths compared to other clubs was they had the resources to cover up mistakes. They still do, but this year as the Red Sox whither on the vine, it might be entirely accurate to drag out another old stand-by that fell into disuse in recent years as the Yankees came a cropper time and again: This year, they really may have bought a pennant.
And the Blue Jays? They're forced to trumpet how they off-loaded contracts without getting anything in return, even while they fall further and further behind the teams they need to beat. It is true, as Ricciardi said in announcing the Blue Jays weren't going to block the White Sox's waiver claim for Rios, that "cash is king." But only if you spend it, and only if you're prepared to be bold when the time comes to make a statement. Based on what you've seen this year, do you think Blue Jays ownership has it in them? I thought so. Enjoy the era of financial flexibility, otherwise known as fourth place.