The Toronto Blue Jays have turned a lacklustre off-season on its ear with the trade of franchise cornerstone Vernon Wells to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, perhaps setting the stage for a long-term contract with Jose Bautista.
Heading for Toronto in exchange for the all-star centre-fielder in the deal announced Friday night are catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera.
The blockbuster deal frees the Blue Jays from what many consider one of the more untradeable contracts in baseball. Wells is due $86 million US over the final four seasons of the $126-million, seven-year contract he signed in December 2006.
Combined with the nearly $59 million the team saved by allowing the Chicago White Sox to claim Alex Rios off waivers in August 2009, general manager Alex Anthopoulos is suddenly blessed with some newfound financial flexibility.
"The biggest component, I think it goes without saying, was the financial implications," Anthopoulos said on a conference call. "Beyond 2011, the financial flexibility it gives our organization in 2012 and beyond, with where we're going and as we build this organization, made a lot of sense for us.
"At the same time we think Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera are very good players."
One of the areas where the money can be used is on Bautista, the home run king who can become a free agent after the 2011 season. Bautista and the Blue Jays were $2.9 million apart on a contract for this year when they exchanged arbitration figures earlier this week, and a long-term deal will require a significant outlay.
The parting of ways with Wells, 32, ends his see-saw run with the team, as he alternated between strong and poor seasons while becoming a lightning rod for fan discontent after signing the big contract.
To be fair, he often played through injury without complaint and provided a quiet clubhouse leadership. But there have been concerns over his decline in skills and some insiders feel there is no chance he will provide a reasonable return on the back end of his contract.
On Friday night, Wells tweeted: "To my new home ... LA! Winning is all that matters!! Let's do this!!"
A three-time all-star, Wells leaves Toronto as the club's all-time leader in at-bats (5,470) and sits second in runs (789), hits (1,529), doubles (339), home runs (223) and RBIs (813).
"Vernon is a player we have admired for some time," Los Angeles general manager Tony Reagins said. "He is a tremendous person and the type of player that will impact our club immediately, both on offence and defence."
The off-season has mostly been a quiet one for the Blue Jays, with the additions of outfielder Rajai Davis and relievers Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch among their most notable moves. Moving Wells certainly changes that, while Napoli and Rivera both become useful short-term pieces.
Happy in Toronto
Anthopoulos said he had received some inquiries about Wells during the GM meetings in November, one of them from the Angels, and he warned his outfielder that his name might show up in trade rumours but he didn't plan to follow up on them.
"He said, look, if there's ever a decision that the Toronto Blue Jays would make to go in some other direction and we felt it made sense for us, there were two or three spots he'd explore going because he was happy in Toronto," said Anthopoulos. "He mentioned Anaheim as one of those select teams."
Anthopoulos and Reagins, who fell short in his pursuit of free agent outfielder Carl Crawford, kept talking throughout the winter, and talks picked up two weeks ago. They finished them in the last few days.
Napoli, 29, a reasonable defensive catcher who can also play first base, is headed to salary arbitration. He's seeking $6.1 million, while the Angels countered at $5.3 million.
Adding him gives the Blue Jays a veteran presence behind the plate while they try to integrate rookie J.P. Arencibia to the big-league roster.
Napoli posted a .238 average with a career-high 26 home runs and 68 RBIs last season, splitting time between first base (70 games), and catcher (66 games). He has a career .251 average with 92 home runs and 249 RBI in parts of five seasons.
Rivera, 32, is set to earn $5.25 million in the final season of a $12.75-million, three-year deal, and is eligible for free agency afterwards. He set career-highs of 25 home runs and 88 RBIs while batting .287 in 2009.
He batted .252 with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs in 2010 after setting career-highs of 25 home runs and 88 RBIs while batting .287 in 2009. In 10 seasons, Rivera has a career average of .280 with 112 home runs and 418 RBIs.
To make room on the 40-man roster following the trade, the Blue Jays designated left-handed pitcher Rommie Lewis for assignment.