SURPRISE, Ariz. – Geovany Soto walked over and asked Randy Wells if he could borrow some headphones. Sitting in front of his locker, Wells joked that it was like “Cubs Castaways” in here.
Jeff Baker – the utility/glue guy who dressed up as team president Theo Epstein for last year’s “Superheroes” road trip – chatted with former Cubs farmhand Jim Adduci on the other side of the room.
For a moment on Wednesday, walking into the Texas Rangers clubhouse at Surprise Stadium seemed like a bizarro world. Soto, the National League’s 2008 Rookie of the Year, is now backing up A.J. Pierzynski, the former White Sox catcher/South Side antagonist.
But Cubs fans have seen this before: Injuries hitting the rotation after a winter spent hoarding pitchers, and Wells fighting for a job.
The Cubs could reach Opening Day with 40 percent of their projected rotation on the disabled list (Matt Garza and Scott Baker). That double-whammy killed the 2011 season before it began, when Wells and Andrew Cashner couldn’t make it through the first week of April, leading to sweeping changes at Clark and Addison.
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The Cubs hope they have enough depth to weather the storm this time. Hisanori Takahashi – who through an interpreter said he signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs after they offered chances to start – gave up three runs in three innings during a 3-2 loss to the Rangers. The veteran Japanese left-hander could win a spot as the long man in the bullpen.
Wells is hoping to be in the mix as a No. 5 starter or swingman for a Rangers team that has won at least 90 games and made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.
There’s an opening in the Texas rotation now that Martin Perez is sidelined for around two months. The 21-year-old prospect got hit by a line drive on Sunday and broke his left forearm. There could be even more competition with Derek Lowe reportedly close to signing with the Rangers on a minor-league deal.
That’s what Wells took after having surgery to remove bone spurs from his right elbow last summer. The idea of Texas, playing for a contender and working for the same organization as The Maddux Brothers all appealed to the huge country music fan.
“They don’t really judge you on your past. It’s all about what you can do in the future,” Wells said. “It’s all up to me. (Manager Ron Washington) laid it out there in the media. It’s competition. And it’s whoever pitches good enough to be there in the end. There are no hidden agendas.”
Did you feel like you had a shot last spring?
“No,” Wells said. “Not to say anything that’s going to get me in trouble or anything, but, you know, it’s not much of a competition when you only get one start (in the Cactus League). There are some things that went down that you can dwell on or whatever, but I’m not bitter or unhappy.
“I loved everybody over there. I think Dale Sveum’s a great manager. I wish I would have (had a chance) to play for him a lot longer. (Chris) Bosio’s a great pitching coach. I think they’re moving in the right direction. It’s just sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
“What I was more bent out of shape about was I had this thing in my mind about playing so long in an organization and starting and finishing (there). The fact of the matter is I just didn’t get the job done. Whether I was hurt or healthy, I didn’t pitch well enough to be able to even go in there and say: ‘Hey, this is (bleep).’ That’s the bottom line.”
Wells said this matter-of-fact, without a hint of anger and asked how things are going in Mesa. He didn’t use the injury as an excuse either, pointing out that he wasn’t hurt coming out of camp last year.
The Cubs stashed Wells at Triple-A Iowa as their No. 6 starter, a $2.7 million insurance policy.
The Cubs correctly envisioned Jeff Samardzija as a potential No. 1 starter and saw more upside in Chris Volstad, a former first-round pick and the guy traded for Carlos Zambrano (and more than $15 million). Volstad’s winless streak would stretch to 24 games and his freelancing on the mound would repeatedly frustrate the coaching staff and lead to his release.
Wells bounced around and never took advantage, posting a 7.89 ERA in nine starts at Iowa and a 5.34 ERA in 12 big-league games. His body didn’t respond to the daily demands of pitching out of the bullpen and “it got to the point where every time I threw the ball I felt a zinging pain in my arm.”
Wells hopes to get his sinker going again and be the pitcher who went 12-10 with a 3.05 ERA as a rookie in 2009 and accounted for 32 starts and almost 200 innings in 2010.
The Cubs originally picked Wells as a catcher in the 38th round of the 2002 draft. The dude from downstate Illinois looks back on it this way: I must have done something right, you know what I mean?
“As much movement as you see within organizations these days, to stay there as long as I did was something I was proud of and something I’ll always cherish,” Wells said. “If I felt I pitched good enough in the big leagues last year to be able to go in and look Dale or Theo or (general manager Jed Hoyer) or Bosio in the eye and say: ‘Hey, this is (bleep),’ then I would have, but I didn’t.”
Wells probably listened too much to the noise from the Chicago media. He didn’t need to be quite so hard on himself in the postgame press conferences.
When you use words like “atrocious” and “unacceptable” and “piss-poor” to describe your performance – like he did last year after a 5-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies – sometimes that shapes the perception.
Wells wasn’t a bonus baby. He had to fight for it and struggled to find his confidence at times. He wanted to move up the ladder after Ted Lilly got traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the 2010 deadline but couldn’t find his footing.
At the age of 30, Wells needed a fresh start, even if it was weird landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and not driving straight to Mesa.
“They’re going in the right direction,” Wells said. “That was the most disappointing thing. You really wanted to be a part of something special in Chicago. Whenever that happens, it’s going to be pretty epic. But it was time to move on and I’m happy to be here. (I’m) happy to be a Ranger.”