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Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells leaves the field after batting practice at the team's MLB baseball spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida February 26, 2010. (FRED THORNHILL)
Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells leaves the field after batting practice at the team's MLB baseball spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida February 26, 2010. (FRED THORNHILL)

Jeff Blair

Wells carrying some heavy baggage this season Add to ...

Who would have thought an eight-year, $184-million (U.S.) contract like the one Joe Mauer signed with the Minnesota Twins this week could be spun into something wholesome? Not Vernon Wells, is my guess.

They cheer everybody in the Grapefruit League because they're really cheering for the sunshine and the beer, but in three weeks less a day Wells will have to step on to the field for the home opener at the Rogers Centre carrying his seven-year, gilt-edged, diamond-encrusted ball and chain.

And after a season in which he hit a tepid .260 with 15 home runs and 66 runs batted in, and with $98.5-million due him over the next five years, and a team expected to be nowhere near the playoffs, Wells knows people will wonder whether it can end anything but badly - Vince Carter plus A.J. Burnett multiplied by three, badly.

"I don't worry about outside things," said Wells, who is hitting .360 this spring with one homer. "It was definitely worse than usual last year, but you learn from it. I mean, nothing is going to be thrown out there this year that I can't handle."

Wells underwent surgery last November to repair cartilage in his left wrist doctors have told him was a remnant from the fracture he suffered early in 2008. Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos had to do some gentle arm-twisting for Wells to go along with making the information public.

And therein lies a clue to something that, beyond a needed improvement on Wells's part, could make the 2010 season more palatable for all concerned. Can the Blue Jays function with Wells's deal, which includes an opt-out clause after 2011 Wells could trigger if he was willing to leave $63-million on the table?

Anthopoulos's answer is: Yes, we can.

Before yesterday's 8-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers, Anthopoulos sat in a conference room at Dunedin Stadium and spun his cellular telephone around on a table, speaking in what is for him dispassionate tones, keenly away of both the sensitivity and sensibilities involved in the affair.

"Is Vernon Wells's contract preventing this team from going where we need to go?" Anthopoulos asked. "If we were a 92- or 93-win team and up against our payroll and needed to do something and couldn't because of it - yeah, then you could say it is. But the truth is, that contract isn't preventing us from doing what we need to do."

Anthopoulos knows the American League East Division is not the National League West.

However, he says the manner in which the Colorado Rockies have fallen off and climbed out of the abyss in which they've generally resided since Todd Helton's nine-year, $141.5-million contract signed in 2003 has, in the least, caught his eye to the point where he offers it as an unsolicited "for example."

Anthopoulos can afford to be dispassionate. He was an assistant to his predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi, when Wells's seven-year, $126-million extension was conjured up, but the heavy-lifting with Wells's agent, Brian Peters, was done by Ricciardi and then-president Paul Godfrey.

Anthopoulos uses the word "premium" to discuss what everyone else would just call a big-time overpayment, wondering coyly if in this marketplace Wells might be worth $13-million to $15-million as a free agent, depending on the team. (Think Jason Bay-ish money.)

And as Anthopoulos notes in an attempt to put the signing in context: Wells's deal was signed a month after Carlos Lee signed a six-year, $100-million contract with the Houston Astros and Alfonso Soriano signed an eight-year, $136-million contract with the Chicago Cubs.

He lets a questioner toss in the fact the Blue Jays were sensitive to the manner in which slugger Carlos Delgado's Toronto tenure wound down and Anthopoulos leaps to the presto! moment when it's said it sounds like he's describing a "perfect storm.'

"For Vernon?" Anthopoulos asked. "Exactly. It was a perfect storm."

But here's the thing: There is nothing pejorative about Anthopoulos's tone. In fact, after 20 minutes, it feels very much as though you're discussing auto insurance.

Wells needs a rebound season offensively and defensively, but having a general manager who does not feel his fingerprints are on the contract, who appears willing to filter public perception can't hurt, either. Can it?

"Well, I think Alex, in the time he was under J.P., got a chance to learn and observe both the good and the bad, like we as players do on the field," Wells said. "Really, though, it's all a matter of just playing better. If I do that, nobody will pay attention."

Know what? The guy seems to believe it.

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