After the Blue Jays traded ace Roy Halladay to the Phillies over the winter, the Toronto organization suddenly took on a new look and a new direction. When veteran center fielder Vernon Wells arrived to Spring Training this year, he said he felt for the first time like it was his team to lead. Coming off a disappointing season, Wells is hoping to regain his form in the batter's box and wants to do his part in helping usher the Blue Jays into this new era.
MLB.com: What have you taken out of this Spring Training from a team standpoint with what you've seen over the past few weeks?
Wells: It's a great group of guys. Everybody is on the same page about what our goals are, and that's just to get better as a group. Obviously, we know the challenge that's in front of us, but I think everybody is looking forward to it.
MLB.com: Personally, how are you feeling right now? You were bothered by a left wrist injury for much of last season and had surgery on your hand over the winter. How would you say you feel now compared to a year ago?
Wells: I feel really good. I think the amount of swings I've been able to take this spring and just how much my hand has improved over the course of the last four or five weeks has been encouraging. Now, it's just a matter of trying to continue to have quality at-bats and get prepared for the season.
MLB.com: How much do you believe the success of the offense depends on you? Some might say that as you go, the offense goes.
Wells: I totally agree with that. Obviously, we have some guys that are capable of putting up big numbers, but being right in the middle of the lineup and the guys that are hitting in front of me and the ability they have to get on base, that's a huge challenge. But you wouldn't want it any other way. It's going to be fun, because hitting is contagious, and it's kind of strange how that happens. If you have your guys in the middle of the lineup swinging the bats like they're supposed to be, everything else kind of falls into place.
MLB.com: You mentioned the guys hitting in front of you, Aaron Hill and Adam Lind. Given what they did last year, how exciting was it to see how they developed offensively and to know that you'll be hitting right behind them this season?
Wells: It's been fun, because I've been able to see them both from the beginning, when they went through that period of learning and making the adjustments. That period is still going to continue. I don't think it ever stops in the big leagues, because everybody is going to try to find a way to get you out. Over the course of last year, you could see them both mature and see them come into their own. I was shaking my head a lot, just at the numbers and what they were able to do on the field. It was fun to watch, and it'll be even more fun for myself if I join in with them this year.
SHAPING UP THE SCHEDULE
Early schedule The Blue Jays hope to get off to a strong start and the April schedule could provide that opportunity. In the season's first month, Toronto will host 15 of its 24 games at Rogers Centre, where the club went 44-37 last season. The Jays have posted a winning record at home in each of the past five seasons and in seven of the past eight campaigns.
The early slate is evenly split between the American League divisions, with nine games against East rivals, eight against West opponents and seven against foes from the Central. Among the teams Toronto will play in April, four (Angels, Red Sox, Rays and Rangers) had winning records and four (White Sox, Orioles, Royals and A's) had losing records during the 2009 season.
Interleague Play The Blue Jays' Interleague schedule primarily features teams from the National League West this year. Toronto will face the D-backs (May 21-23), Rockies (June 11-13) and Padres (June 14-16) on the road and will host the Giants (June 18-20). The Jays will also welcome the Cardinals (June 22-24) and Phillies (June 25-27) to Rogers Centre.
Key home dates:
April 12-15. The Blue Jays open the 2010 season with a four-game series against the White Sox, giving the home crowd its first look at Toronto's reshaped roster.
June 4-6. Toronto will welcome AL rivals and the 2009 World Series champion New York Yankees to Rogers Centre for the first time this season.
June 25-27. The Blue Jays host the Philadelphia Phillies, who acquired former Toronto ace Roy Halladay in a blockbuster trade over the offseason.
MLB.com: You signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Blue Jays after the 2006 season. At any point, whether it was '07, '08, '09 or even going into this year, have you ever felt pressure to live up to the type of expectations that come with that type of contract?
Wells: I don't think I'm ever going to be able to live up to it. I've said that from the get-go. I got a question when I signed, "Did I feel I was worth that kind of money?" I don't think anybody is worth that amount of money. It's just that's what the market is. Since the day I signed in '97, you get $1.6 million out of high school at the age of 18, that's a lot of money -- for anyone. It's part of the game. You're going to make money, and I think the thing is continuing to enjoy this game, play it as you did when you were a kid, and the money is just something that comes along with it. It's not something you try to pay attention to, whether you're making the minimum or making millions and millions of dollars. It's about putting on the uniform and respecting the game. That's not going to be any more pressure than being in the box, down by two with two guys on.
MLB.com: Does the fact that this is the final season for Cito Gaston as manager change anything from the players' standpoint, especially when you know this club is looking toward the future? How might that play into things in the clubhouse?
Wells: It'll be different. It'll be the first time kind of going into a season knowing this is the manager's last year. I think for us as a group, it's just having him go out on the right note, to have him be a part of this building process, to be part of this turnaround, and for him to be an instrumental part in the growth of a lot of these young guys. Obviously, last year, there were some issues, but I think we all learned from it and got better from it. I think that's the key coming into this season. You learn from everything that goes on, and he's going to be a big part of it.
MLB.com: Whether it was finding a way to diffuse last season's clubhouse controversy, keeping Cito as the manager, trading Halladay or any of the other moves he has made, what have you thought of the early work of new general manager Alex Anthopoulos?
Wells: I think everything Alex has done, he's got a clear and straight path of what he wants to do. That's all you can ask out of a GM -- is know what you want to do and then try to execute all your goals and put your stamp on this organization. He's obviously had some tough things to do -- the toughest was trading one of the best pitchers in the game. He pulled that off and was able to get some great talent back. It remains to be seen what those three guys will be able to do, but he's taken the bull by the horns and he's run with it. I think he's enjoying it. I think he learned a lot over the last couple years being under (former GM J.P. Ricciardi), and I think he's up for the challenge and it's been fun watching him work.
MLB.com: The three players Anthopoulos did acquire in the Halladay trade -- Kyle Drabek, Brett Wallace and Travis d'Arnaud -- you got to see them firsthand this spring. What was your impression of those three players and the potential they have on the field and in the clubhouse?
Wells: They are great kids, first and foremost. They're three guys that can be great in the clubhouse, and obviously their talent speaks for itself. When you're trading the best, you're trying to get the best young players in return. I got to see Drabek start a game here against the Phillies, and I didn't realize his velocity was 93-94 mph. He was kind of sitting on that, and it was impressive to kind of just stand back there and watch. You start to realize why he was so prized by the Phillies. I've heard nothing but great things about Wallace, and you watch him swing the bat and you can tell he's got some pop in his bat. It's just a matter of experience for him and Travis -- getting that experience at the plate -- and once they're at this level, just jump right in and help this organization.
MLB.com: Given the potential of those players and with the core group that's already in place, Anthopoulos does not like to refer to what's going on here as "rebuilding," because he does not feel like much was torn down beyond the Halladay trade. Does it feel like a rebuild to you?
Wells: I like to call it a retooling. I think that's a better word, because there are still guys here that can play. There are still guys here who can produce. At the same time, we're putting ourselves in a position to be one of those organizations that are able to bring guys up who are able to make an impact immediately. I think that's been the thing with some of the teams that have been good for long stretches. You have the Yankees, who can bring in a Robinson Cano and he can jump right into an All-Star lineup and become an All-Star. I think it's adding pieces to the puzzle that can come in and produce and be cornerstones of the organization. That starts with stockpiling talent in the Minor Leagues and allowing them to grow.
MLB.com: Based on the direction the organization is taking now, what are your expectations for the Blue Jays this season?
Wells: Get better. Be better than we were last year, which I think is possible. I know that's strange to say after you lose your ace, a guy who takes the ball every fifth day. But I think everybody in that rotation has taken on the challenge of filling that void. Obviously, it all starts with the pitching and our defense. And I should probably try to swing the bat a little better than I did last year. That would help, too.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.