Jayson Werth and The Nationals

The talk of Natstown is, understandably so, the signing of Jayson Werth for 7 years and $126 million. The contract is certainly one to discuss, but before I get into that, I’d like to examine the player himself.¬† Not the player in relation to the contract, just the player. And there’s quite a bit of good to say about him, starting with his offense.

He is a righty that absolutely mashes lefties, and he’s got a combo of speed and power. He’s only been a full time player for three seasons, when the Phillies were convinced, by Werth himself or by necessity, to allow him play against lefties. Over his last 3 seasons, he’s hit .279/.376/.513. He strikes out a great deal, with just about 150 each of the last 2 years, but he also walked around 85 times in each of those seasons. His offensive¬† numbers are actually quite similar to Dunn’s, as shown in this fangraphs article. He doesn’t have as much power as Dunn, but he has higher AVG and OBP, and he is significantly better on the basepaths.

As for the offensive splits, they are significant. His career OPS against lefties is .944 but it’s only .807 against righties. But before you get worried, last season he hit .881 against lefties and .937 against righties. That reverse split is likely to go away, but he’s hit well enough the last few seasons against righties anyway that he is a full time player, and he’s been so strong against lefties.

On the defensive side of the ball, he’s got a reputation as a good fielder. His career UZR/150 is 10.3, but last year it was -7.3. It was his only year in negative territory, and in 2007 and 2008 it was so high, over 28 each time. I assume it is one of the sample size issues with that stat. If he and Dunn are close to a wash offensively, Werth is much more valuable on defense.

His Role on the Team

The interesting thing about this deal is where this leaves the lineup. They may have all of their positions filled with quality players the foreseeable future. Assuming they have a 3B in Zimmerman, a SS in Desmond, a 2B in Espinosa, and a C in Ramos or Norris, there are very few spots to fill. If Bernadina can hit enough to play CF, and they sign a 1B (which is likely), and then Harper comes up and plays RF, and Werth moves to LF, they’ll actually be set in every position for a few years to come. And they’ll have cheap young players in all spots but Werth’s, Zimmerman’s and maybe whoever plays first. That might be part of Rizzo’s thinking. They have the position players now, in their opinion, with Werth. The defense and offense is ready for the most part, albeit very young and not yet able to be considered a guarantee.

That leaves Willingham a bit out in the cold. They could move him to 1B but then they’d have to extend his contract, which means they’ll probably just sign a different 1B. They could probably use Willingham for another year or two, especially since Harper hasn’t even started minor league baseball. But Willingham could be a difference maker for a contending team in 2011, and the Nats might be inclined to trade him. It would make sense that they’d see what can be had for him this week, not to mention in the summer before the deadline. Additionally, if Werth and Harper are to be corner outfielders for the next 7 years, then the team’s few true OF prospects may be trade fodder. Michael Burgess is a high power/OBP/strikeout RF who could bring in some real value. He blossomed in the second half of last season, and there may be lingering doubts about his ability to succeed in the majors. But he’s got value now, and another strong minor league season could return his blue chip status. The only other big corner outfielder that could bring value is Destin Hood, who hasn’t yet shown speed, power or a great ability to walk, but he hit for a high average and looked skilled at doing it.

On to the Contract

Of course, that leaves the rotation and the bench. Does $18M a year make it more difficult for them to sign a front line starter? What about filling out the bench? I have no idea. I don’t know what this ownership’s budget projections actually look like. They are thought of as cheap, but it is possible that they just never wanted to spend money on middling free agents to make a .500 club like what some teams do. It is possible that now that they feel they are closer to contending, they will get a few top line guys to go with their prospects. It is possible that if they paid Werth $25M a year, they’d be in the same shape.

It’s also possible that if they paid him only $10M a year, ownership would feel like they were out of money. I have no idea, and neither does anyone else outside of the organization. This isn’t a team that picked a topline budget and has stuck to that relative number for the last few years. Maybe they see the budget at $80M a year, which makes Werth too expensive. Maybe they see it at $120M or $180M. I just don’t know.

What can’t be argued is that $18M is a significant amount of money. It likely won’t be less than 15% of the entire payroll for the next few years at least, unless the team does have those much higher projections. This could dampen the ability to extend Zimmerman, or Strasburg, or even Harper, and that would be bad news. Perhaps they should start talking to their third basemen now about extending his contract beyond the 2013 season. Problem is, he’s more valuable on an individual basis than Werth.

As for the length of the contract, well, that is the real problem with this deal. He will be 38 when this ends. As Keith Law pointed out in his free agent preview, Werth “has had knee problems that date back to his days as a catching prospect… Knee problems tend to get worse as a player reaches his mid- to late-30s, so while Werth is healthy at the moment, a long-term commitment involves some extra risk in his case.” And there aren’t that many speed/power hitters that are as strong at age 38 as they are at age 31. We know that. But Rizzo and company didn’t go in here blind. And I don’t believe they were panicking after the reaction of the fans from Dunn’s deal. Instead, I think they looked at this player and decided that they wanted him, and needed to overpay to get him, especially in years. Rizzo may think that they are getting 5 years that are worth the money, and 2 that are completely up in the air. But he did it because he thought it was time to start being more competitive, and that this would help. Barring catastrophic injury, or Werth completely forgetting how to hit, we won’t know how this contract works out until at least 2015.

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