Wednesday, December 15, 2010, 5:40 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEO
Jayson Werth spent the last four seasons playing in as successful an environment as you can find in baseball: as one piece of a Philadelphia Phillies roster loaded with All-Stars that played in front of sellout crowds every night and won four straight division titles, with a World Series crown thrown in for good measure.
The curly W cap and jersey he donned Wednesday for the first time is associated with none of that. The Nationals have never posted a winning record since arriving in Washington six years ago. They've often played in front of half-empty stadiums. And the roster, while featuring a handful of elite players, hasn't been awash with the kind of talent the Phillies have boasted in recent seasons.
Werth understands the challenge now staring him in the face. And he embraces it.
"I've been in the postseason a lot the last couple of years," he said. "That's what it's all about. That's what you play for. That's what you work out for. That's what you get to spring training early for. I hate to lose. I'm here to win."
Whether the Nationals do win with Werth in uniform remains to be seen, though they certainly have plenty of time to make that happen since he's now locked up for the next seven years, with the right to veto any trade presented to him.
The 31-year-old outfielder, who signed a 126 million deal that represents the 14th largest contract in baseball history, insists he wouldn't have come to Washington if he didn't think this organization was poised to win. And in meeting with general manager Mike Rizzo and managing principal owner Ted Lerner last month, Werth became convinced the franchise is committed to doing what it will take to do just that.
"The young talent in this organization is immense," he said. "With the length of the contract I got, I felt good about the chances of this organization winning over the course of my contract."
The Nationals are banking on Werth being a major part of what team officials have termed "Phase 2" of their long-term rebuilding program. And they handed him the kind of contract typically afforded only for the game's best players.
Werth, though, wasn't necessarily a "franchise" player in Philadelphia. He was more of a complementary figure on a star-laden roster that included Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.
Is he prepared now to deal with the pressure of being "The Man" in Washington?
"The good thing is, I'm coming from a place where I got to see true professionals do that," Werth said, rattling off the names of some of those former teammates. "So I've had some learning, I guess, over the last few years of what it takes to be that type of guy: The franchise guy, or the face of the organization.
"But I think Ryan Zimmerman is that guy, and I don't think that's going to change a whole lot. I'm happy and on-board to do whatever the organization asks me. But realistically, I'm here to play baseball."
The Nationals, in many ways, aren't asking Werth to step right in and shoulder the load. Despite the humongous contract, they still view him as one of several important pieces to the puzzle, along with Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and eventually Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
Werth may not even hit third or fourth in Jim Riggleman's Opening Day lineup, though the manager said Wednesday he would be in one of those spots if the season began right now. The Nationals are still in the market for a left-handed-hitting first baseman, and if they can land their top remaining target (Adam LaRoche) Werth might very well wind up hitting fifth just as he did in Philadelphia.
Riggleman also doesn't expect Werth to struggle with the pressure that comes with a contract of this magnitude.
"He's been through the wars in Philadelphia," the manager said. "Expectations were very high there, and he answered the bell."
Rizzo and Riggleman zeroed in on Werth as their top offseason target back in midsummer, once if became clear he wasn't going to re-sign with the Phillies. They see a late-bloomer who is just entering the prime of his career, a complete player who can make up for the occasional slump at the plate with sterling defense in right field or hustle on the basepaths.
So they were willing to make some concessions when it came time to negotiate a contract with Werth. They offered him a deal that won't expire until he turns 38, at which point his base salary will be a staggering 21 million. And they were willing to offer something this franchise had never offered before: a full no-trade clause.
That was one of the last "sticking points" to getting the contract finalized, Rizzo said, and it wasn't something the organization initially wanted to do. Ultimately, the Nationals felt like they had no choice.
"I'd rather not have a no-trade clause," Rizzo said. "It's another impediment to roster construction; I would term it that way. A no-trade clause gives a player more control. That's why we were reluctant to do it. But it's something that for an elite free agent like this, I thought I would relent on it. Because we had to do it to get the player."
The challenge the Nationals face remains immense, especially in attempting to overtake a Phillies club that remains the class of the NL East and with this week's re-signing of Lee now boasts a rotation of four aces.
For his part, Werth welcomes the challenge. He participated in no shortage of clubhouse champagne celebrations the last four years. He wants his new teammates to get to enjoy the experience as well.
"If you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best," he said. "The Phillies make their plays, and we're going to make ours. I think over the course of time, you're going to see ... the Washington Nationals are for real and they're going to play the style of baseball that's going to bring championships to this city."