Angels outfielder Vernon Wells has been out of the lineup since May 21 with… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
The closer Vernon Wells gets to returning from surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb, the more the Angels outfielder looks like a $21-million elephant in the room.
Wells, sidelined since May 21, began playing catch this past week and will begin a hitting progression — dry swings to tee work to soft toss to live batting practice — at his Texas home during next week's All-Star break.
He is expected to begin a minor league rehabilitation assignment later this month and should be ready to be activated off the 60-day disabled list by the end of July.
At which point Wells will come back to . . . what, exactly?
"You're asking the wrong person," said Wells, who was hitting .244 with a .282 on-base percentage, six home runs and 12 runs batted in when he got hurt. "That's for you guys to speculate on. I'm going to worry about getting my thumb healthy. That's all I need to be concerned with."
Wells was the starting left fielder when he injured his thumb sliding into second base against San Diego on May 20, but the landscape has changed dramatically since his departure.
The Angels were 18-24 and in last place in the American League West, eight games behind Texas, the day Wells got hurt. They entered Saturday night's game against the Baltimore Orioles with a 46-38 record and in second place, four games behind the Rangers.
And the two players who have keyed that surge — center fielder Mike Trout and left fielder Mark Trumbo — appear entrenched in the lineup, as do right fielder Torii Hunter (.270, 10 homers, 34 RBIs) and designated hitter Kendrys Morales (.289, eight homers, 32 RBIs).
Trout, promoted from triple-A Salt Lake on April 27, has emerged as not only a rookie-of-the-year candidate but a most-valuable-player contender, entering Saturday with an AL-leading .347 average and 26 stolen bases, a .401 OBP, 11 homers, 39 RBIs and 55 runs.
Trumbo has established himself as one of baseball's best young sluggers, taking a .307 average and a team-leading 21 homers and 56 RBIs into Saturday night's game. Both Trout and Trumbo were selected for Tuesday'sAll-Star Gamein Kansas City.
There appears to be little room — or need — for Wells, other than an occasional start in the outfield or at DH, and with two more years and another $42 million left on his contract, the underachieving 33-year-old, acquired from Toronto before the 2011 season, is virtually impossible to trade.
What kind of role do the Angels envision for Wells?
"That remains to be seen," General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. If you plan too far ahead on how you intend to use players you could lock yourself into something that might not be in the best interest of anybody."
The concern for the Angels is that there could be distractions if Wells grumbles about a lack of playing time or other players grumble about Wells taking at-bats away from Trout and Trumbo.
"We're going to take it one step at a time with Vernon," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Depth of the club is going to be important. When the time is right, we'll see what our decisions are going to be."
Dipoto also declined to get too deep into speculation about Wells' future with the team.
"You play it day by day because you don't know what's going to happen," Dipoto said. "A week ago we had six starting pitchers for five spots; now we're trying to figure out how the rotation is going to line up. Baseball is a funny game. Just when you start counting your chickens, your chickens change."