Nationals Are "All In" with Werth

Posted by Dave Nichols | Monday, December 06, 2010 | , , , | 0 comments »

The last time Jayson Werth was at Nats Park he looked like this. (C.Nichols/Nats News Network)

Mike Rizzo went all-in.

With the announcement of a seven-year, $126 million contact for right fielder Jayson Werth, Mike Rizzo, the Lerner family, and the entire Washington Nationals organization decided to go all-in, foregoing a steady growth pattern and instead choosing to try to buy a pennant.

That's the only way this deal makes sense.

Werth is 32 in May, and the deal he just signed, at an average of $18 million per season, will pay him until he's 39 year old, through the 2018 season.

Stephen Strasburg will be a free agent before Werth's contract is up.

Werth's contract will be an albatross to the franchise for at least the last several years of the deal, because contrary to Rizzo's stated opinion yesterday that Werth's "best years are ahead of him," players just don't get better after their 30th birthday.  The best you can hope for is steady production until the player reaches 35-36 then have a gradual decline.  Most likely, production drops precipitously after age 32-33.

Werth averages .272/.367/.481 with 25 homers, 85 RBIs and 16 SBs per 162 games, so he brings a lot of goodness to the table.  But he's not a first-level, automatic All-Star.  He's a really good right-handed bat, who didn't blossom until after his 28th birthday.

One of the benefits of his right-handedness and athleticism is that Werth can effectively platoon with Nyjer Morgan in center field, sliding over to center when the Nats face a left-handed pitcher, allowing Michael Morse to be utilized where his talent can me maximized.

It also makes moving Josh Willingham for a pitcher much easier and would open up a spot for Roger Bernadina in perhaps his best place in the lineup, in left field.

But the Nationals still have several holes to fill to be a contender for the next three years, and with this signing they've announced that's what they want to be.  Rizzo needs to go out and acquire a first baseman (preferably a left-handed hitter) and address the pitching staff. 

If the Nats seriously want to compete and challenge for the playoffs in the next couple of years, they can't rely on Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, Yunesky Maya and the stable of No. 5 starters they have.

And depending on what it takes to land a top of the rotation starter, the Nats might have to fill in the cracks.  The good news is that the Nationals have good, young, majro league ready (or almost) talent at two of the biggest positions of demand right now in the Major Leagues, catcher and shortstop.

Is it worth trading Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond or Derek Norris to land a Zack Greinke or Matt Garza if they can't land a dependable veteran to lead the staff via free agency?  That's for Rizzo to decide.

The Nats still appear to be "in" on Cliff Lee though, as Lee's agent said today at the winter meetings that they've already spoken with Rizzo.  But that would mean landing top of the top 10 free agent contracts ever in the same off-season.  Can the Lerner's wallets expand that wide that quickly.  I wouldn't expect it, but I also don't think we can discount it now.

Let's talk about Werth's contract though.  The last three or so years of this contract are going to make the list of "worst contracts ever".  The deal is being universally panned throughout baseball, both on the length and amount of the contract -- mostly by current and former GMs.  It's already impacted the Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford deals, and will be a barometer for free agent contracts for several seasons.

It's just crazy talk to give a 32-year old player a seven year deal at any amount, let alone $18 million per.  Rizzo said openly Sunday that the Nationals found themselves to be in a position to be forced to overpay in dollars and years to land a top free agent.  Well, that he did.

Another way to look at this:  the Nationals just signed a player that the best team in division decided was too old to sign to a long-term contract.  Of course, the Phillies have a Major League talent ready to take Werth's place in Domonic Brown.  The Nats don't have that luxury -- but they will soon.

It's interesting that the biggest acquisition in Nationals history happens to play the exact same position of their best minor league prospect, Bryce Harper, who might be ready to ascend to the big leagues at the start of 2012, or a little later in that year at worst.  Regardless of when it happens, either Werth or Harper are going to have to switch positions.

Could one Werth move to center field full-time, at age 34 or 35?  It's an interesting proposition.  You certainly wouldn't want to move either to first base, reducing their effectiveness as a complete player.  But I guess that's a debate to be had another day.

On last thing, as this related to Adam Dunn.  We now have to take Rizzo at his word that the Dunn decision was a "baseball" decision, not a purely financial decision.  Rizzo would have taken Dunn back on his terms, but it's now clear that the combination of his baseball skills and personality eliminated Dunn from being a "Rizzo guy".

So NatsTown is married to Jayson Werth, for better or worse.  It's hard to imagine the Nats ever being able to move that contract, so he'll be here for the duration.  Bringing him in makes the Nationals a better team immediately and for the next several seasons, but it will be a waste of time, money and effort if they don't seriously address the other major needs of the big league team.

The events of the last several days have left an indelible stamp on the Washington Nationals organization.  And it's quite possible events this week could add to that designation.  No, for the Jayson Werth deal to make sense, fiscally and baseball-wise, Mike Rizzo has to go out and continue to spend the Lerner's money. 

Because they're all in.  It's about winning in 2011, 2012 and 2013 now, future be damned.