Its name is Vernon Wells.
He is the signature position player for an organization that, with a slight payroll push, has gained 20 wins over the past two seasons. He is 28 years old, two years younger than Alfonso Soriano.
He also can be a free agent after next season, at a moment when the game is awash in wealth and the Blue Jays are trying to keep their momentum in a top-heavy division.
About now, however, Toronto and its baseball franchise are deflecting Carlos Delgado flashbacks, and general manager J.P. Ricciardi is reliving his formative years in Oakland, during which Mark McGwire was traded and Jason Giambi was allowed to walk. Not long after Ricciardi left for Toronto, Miguel Tejada left the A's for the same financial reasons.
According to one baseball source, Ricciardi has floated to Wells a proposal of seven years and $126 million, the average annual value of which would exceed Soriano's contract with the Chicago Cubs (eight years, $136 million) by $1 million.
Ricciardi would not comment and Wells' agent, Greg Genske, would only say, "We have yet to have meaningful discussions," about a contract extension.
There are three ways this could go. Wells could sign an extension with the Blue Jays. He could be traded and sign long-term with his new team. Or, no matter where he spends the 2007 season, he could be part of next winter's free-agent class that might include premier outfielders Andruw Jones and Ichiro Suzuki.
Ricciardi has been down this route before, learning from Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane the rules of mid-market engagement. He appears to have vacillated on Wells, for a while being firm in his intention to hold on as long as he could, lately seeming likely to explore trades for a return on the organization's decade-long investment. He has signed Frank Thomas to be his designated hitter and Royce Clayton to settle shortstop, but, in missing out on free-agent pitchers Ted Lilly and Gil Meche, he lacks a full rotation.
Wells would leave a massive hole in the middle of the Blue Jays' lineup and in center field, where he's won three Gold Gloves in a row. Presumably, he'd bring pitching, where the Blue Jays were stronger than the Yankees and Red Sox last season, but, again, lost Lilly to the Cubs and reliever Justin Speier to the Los Angeles Angels. While Lilly had his goofy moments, he made as many starts as Roy Halladay, won one fewer game (and lost eight more, over 38 fewer innings) and had one fewer quality start. He wasn't Halladay, but neither was he Josh Towers.
Blue Jays fans adore Wells, as does management. He was drafted by Toronto with the fifth overall pick in 1997. He was a big-leaguer by 1999 and a full-timer by 2002. He arrived as a composed, skilled kid and has become a regular All-Star, a leader, a spokesman. Team president Paul Godfrey told the Toronto Star recently that Wells is "a model athlete," at a time when we could use them.
So stands Ricciardi, in a familiar place, weighing a contract extension Wells deserves against roster and payroll decisions that just aren't that easy.
"Any decision you make, the hardest thing to do is not have your emotions involved," he said Tuesday morning. "I can't tell you what's going to happen. What I can say is our ownership is going to allow us to do everything in our power to keep him, within reason. And that's where the gray area lies.
"Just like Delgado, this is a wonderful guy with a great family who stands for all the right things."
Of them all, Ricciardi recalled the A's decision to trade McGwire, who went to St. Louis for three middling pitchers, as most disheartening.
"We knew we were trading him for financial reasons," he said, "and weren't getting a return on the dollar."
Then he added, "Not to sound cold, but the game does go on."
"Some of these organizations have done a good job," he said. "In a perfect world, we could keep all these players. But, we don't live in a perfect world. You just have to be smart about it. It doesn't matter which way you go, you're going to be criticized for it."
That leaves Wells.
"I don't think we know yet," he said.
• The Texas Rangers will pay Eric Gagne a base salary of $6 million and up to $5 million more in incentives based on games finished. They were satisfied with Akinori Otsuka (32 saves in 36 opportunities) in the closer role, however, and the immediate plan is to have Gagne pitch primarily in the eighth inning.
Rangers GM Jon Daniels continues to target starting pitching. He has made an offer to Barry Zito and on Tuesday hosted free agent Mark Mulder in Texas. If Daniels is unable to sign either left-hander, he'll likely adjust to Jeff Weaver and Jeff Suppan.
• One witness described the scene at Scott Boras' Newport Beach, Calif., offices this week as "insane." The Daisuke Matsuzaka negotiations not only drew Red Sox President Larry Lucchino and GM Theo Epstein to Boras' doorstep, but dozens of reporters, most of them from Japan.