Vernon Wells must hit to remain in Angels' lineup

TEMPE, Ariz. – If Mike Trout has a care in the world, it's hiding behind the tools, the laugh, the shoulders, the rep, the humility, everything that comes with being 20 and touched by something special.

True, on a few of those lists that attempt to rate young men and their proficiency in baseball – and baseball's proclivity for them – Trout has tumbled.

From one to two. Gasp. Three, even.

"Oh man," he said, feigning sadness.

In the Los Angeles Angels clubhouse, certainly among the old-timers, he reminds folks of Darin Erstad in the way he carries himself and attacks the game. And in the way the game seems to love him back.

Remember when you knew your time was coming? More accurately, that it was out there, waiting on you?

Eagerly, patiently, desperately, Trout prepared himself this winter in a batting cage in south Jersey, in the town of Vineland, where the motto is, "A Harvest of Opportunities in the Heart of the Northeast." He went with his dad and his high school coach, and they worked on Mike's hitting the ball through the middle. See, he's always loved driving a pitch the other way.

"Then I get to the big leagues," he said, "and they pitch me inside."

He played 14 games in the major leagues while a teenager, then 26 more after his mid-summer birthday.

Vernon Wells has been doing this for the better part of 13 years. He played 24 games in the major leagues as a 20-year-old, back when his time was coming.

What transpired since has been very good and very bad, All-Star seasons and horrifying seasons, and sometimes a whiplashing amalgamation of both.

He has weathered every bit, honoring the good with humility and grace, bearing the bad through accountability and introspection.

Wells is a good man and a wonderful teammate. He also is a hitter with holes, worrisome habits, a suddenly searing inability to reach base, and a contract that would paralyze a majority of franchises. But, he clings to the good, to the promise of tomorrow.

"You go the other way," he said, "you're going to be depressed. It'll wear you down. I've had to learn to deal with it."

Stubbornly, hopefully, desperately, Wells attempted to remake himself this winter in a batting cage in Dallas, this at the knee of old friend Rudy Jaramillo, hitting coach for the Chicago Cubs. The two set aside the Wells who posted a .218 batting average and a .248 on-base percentage in 2011 and hoped to recapture the Wells who once hit in the .300s, who stayed inside the ball, who strove to hit the ball through the middle.

"I left there many days with the sense that I got a little bit better today," he said.

At stake is left field for the Los Angeles Angels.

Perhaps not today or tomorrow, or even April or May, but it's out there.

In a perfect world for the Angels, Wells – he nodded toward Albert Pujols – would be, as he said, "The Robin to his Batman."

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And Trout would spend at least part of the 2012 season at Triple-A Salt Lake, where he's never taken so much as an at-bat.

Peter Bourjos would continue to steady himself at the plate, Torii Hunter would never grow old, Bobby Abreu would find at-bats, Kendrys Morales would hit like he did when his first name was singular and the offense would add a hundred or two runs over last season.

In any other scenario, say if Wells cannot produce and Trout's time is nigh, then what follows is a long, frank discussion about putting the best team in the lineup and millions upon millions of dollars on the bench.

This, of course, is not the sort of discussion a team would hold in public. Already manager Mike Scioscia has had to soothe Abreu's discontent after reports surfaced that Abreu would have been traded to the New York Yankees had A.J. Burnett not vetoed the deal.

So, calling it a competition in left – Wells vs. Trout – is as counterproductive as it is premature. Given their investment in Wells ($63 million over the next three seasons), the Angels must let him play himself into or out of the job.

Still, given their investment in the rest of the roster and the options it brings, Scioscia may not be as tolerant as he was in 2011.

If that spawns competition, then it begins in left field, and in the winter echoes of batting cages separated by 1,400 miles, 13 years, and a lifetime in the game.

Mike Trout's locker is on the other side of the door, near a corner that houses the minor leaguers, the young bucks who keep their hopes high and their conversations low.

He's worse off than some – the other side of the room is airier and farther from the traffic flow.

And better off than others – in spots, there's two men to a locker.

"I feel good, man," he said. "You gotta come out here and go with the flow. Have fun. Just compete, man. That's all that matters."

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He's pleasant and slightly guarded. Little can go right when the reporters come around, but plenty can go wrong. So he sticks to the fundamentals.

"You always gotta [think] you can win a job," he said. "[But] it's still up in the air right now. If they put me in Salt Lake, wherever they want me. … I'm still young. It'll make me believe I have to work harder."

Vernon Wells dresses amid a row of lockers that includes Albert Pujols', Torii Hunter's, Bobby Abreu's and Kendrys Morales'. These are the established players, the ones who've made something of themselves, the ones holding off the guys in the corner.

He has had this conversation before. Many times. Too many times. It's about hitting, about being too young to be on the downside of his career and too old to be mystified by the results.

But he wears it with patience and dignity. Nobody wants to be Vernon Wells again more than Vernon Wells, and nobody wants more to be part of the solution of what went wrong here than he does.

He's told he could be the critical player here if the Angels are to catch the Texas Rangers.

"I completely agree with you," he said. "I know what I'm still capable of doing, putting up numbers I did in the past, if not better."

He nodded to the young men past the door and in the corner, and said with a grin, "I can still run around with these kids."

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