It's been an odd and fascinating few weeks as a Jays fan, as we've watched the team's fan base turn on the team's putative cornerstone offensive star, Vernon Wells.
(And before you go any further: We're making a distinction between the team's best player, which is clearly Roy Halladay, and the team's best position player. There are different expectations for each category, and they really aren't evaluated one against the other. Whether if they should is a totally different debate, which we can have on another day.)
What started out as frustration tempered by optimism has evolved into outright contempt as Wells performance at the plate, in the field and in the public sphere have all tanked this season. The expectations for Wells - a former first round pick, All-Star, Gold Glover and Silver Slugger - are astronomical, made all the more so by the sheer heft of his contract.
And while we've tried to separate Wells' performance from his remuneration, there's no question that the numbers he'll pull down in the coming seasons will have a severe impact on the team's payroll flexibility. Which means less money to resign players or to pick up key free agents. Which means finding a new level for the Vernon Wells Hatred Advisory System.
What occurs to us is that Wells is being held to a standard which very few other players could ever live up to, in part because of the long shadow cast by the last centerpiece star of the franchise, Carlos Delgado.
We probably didn't appreciate at the time just what an outstanding offensive player Delgado was. In fact, we seem to recall plenty of occasions where people picked nits over specific at bats or his performance in "clutch" situations. And yet, Delgado drove in more that 91 runs in each of his full seasons with the team, posting a garish .949 OPS for his career with the Blue Jays. King Carlos posted six of the 10 best single season OPSs, and holds the team records in runs, walks, total bases, homers, and RsBI.
Delgado's performance over his 12 years of service to the Blue Jays is the Gold Standard for Toronto hitters, and he established it just before the mantle of the team's best player was handed over to Wells. That's a hell of a shadow for Wells to step out from under. And in all likelihood, he never will.
(In fact, we're not sure who ever will. In our happiest springtime dreams, we saw Travis Snider becoming a 40 homer, 120 RBI force in the middle of the lineup over the next decade, although it's amazing how quickly those dreams were dashed.)
Because Wells came of age in the Carlos era, it's easy to forget just how long he's been a part of the franchise. Seemingly, we've been certain for several years that he was about to step up and transcend to the next level of stardom. That's why almost everyone at the time was completely on board with the contract extension that Wells signed: Vernon was the Franchise, and we couldn't afford - for baseball reasons and others - to see him walk away.
Certainly, the flashes that we saw out of Wells in 2003 and 2006 were enough to keep those notions fueled for years afterwards. But Wells was never a player who was going to play every season at those levels.
Wells is what he is. He won't ever be much more.
Only three batters (Delgado, Tony Fernandez and Lloyd Moseby) have made more plate appearances as a Jay than Wells, so we should be able to get a pretty good handle on where he stands amongst the team's all-time greats. And given two more average seasons with the club, Vernon will find himself moving ahead of the names in the pantheon - Bell, Barfield, Fernandez, Moseby - into second place in many of the team's all-time leaders list in key offensive categories.
What Vernon Wells will never do, though, is live up to what Carlos Delagado did on the field.
Moreover, he'll never be the central figure that Delgado was off the field. Delgado was a friendly, gregarious and cerebral player who was ready for the cameras and mics, and who gave thoughtful and honest quotes that didn't seem as though they'd been hashed out through hours of media training. Even in his most contentious moments, like when Elliotte Friedman, then of the Score, took the team's star to task at the end of a dissapointing season and affected shock when Carlos responded with fury, Carlos always seemed to be willing to take the role of team spokesman and handle it with aplomb. (Some might say that Delgado liked and sought out the attention, but again, that helped set the standard for what we expect of the franchise player.)
Wells, on the other hand, is a downcast mumbler whose answers to the media are stultifying to the point of being insulting. He's never seemed comfortable stepping into the lead role in speaking for his teammates, and when he is put into the position, he rarely offers anything insightful or inspiring.
None of this is fair, really, and we'll confess to that. One of the reasons why Delgado left such an indellible impression on Jays fans is that he left before his level of performance dropped off too far. And even at that, people were ready to chase him out of town at the end, because of (go figure) his contract.
Given the seemingly untradeable contract that Wells has, we'll likely get a good long look at his career's decline. And while it could very well be that by the end of his time with the Jays, Wells ends up as the second best position player in the team's history, he'll never have grasped at the levels that Delgado reached. And he'll always be seen as a failure for it.