Zuckerman: Nats Make Statement With Werth Deal

Zuckerman: Nats Make Statement With Werth Deal
December 6, 2010, 2:53 am
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Sunday, December 5, 2010, 9:50 p.m.

By Mark Zuckerman

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It's a rare day indeed when the Washington Nationals make a move that shakes up the entire baseball world.

This is a franchise that for the better part of six years has existed on the periphery of the major leagues, content to build its franchise through draft picks and second-tier acquisitions, leaving the headlines to its counterparts in New York and Boston and Chicago and Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

So when word came down this afternoon that the Nationals (yes, the Nationals) had signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year, 126 million (yes, seven years and 126 million) contract, the sound echoing through the Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort where the winter meetings are about to convene was the jaw of every member of the baseball world dropping to the floor in unison.

So much for the Nationals staying on the periphery while everyone else makes news.

The staggering size of this contract cannot be understated. Not only is it far and away the largest contract in NationalsExpos history (two years and 81 million more than Ryan Zimmerman got in 2009), it's tied for the 13th largest contract in baseball history. The only players who have ever scored deals bigger than the one the Nationals just gave Werth: Alex Rodriguez (twice), Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Manny Ramirez, Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Cabrera, Todd Helton, Johan Santana and Alfonso Soriano.

Even Mike Rizzo, the man who decided (with approval from owner Ted Lerner, of course) to make this move, admits he's overpaying Werth, who will be 38 when his contract finally expires after the 2017 season.

"I think anyone is a little uncomfortable with giving anyone a seven-year deal," Rizzo said during his late-afternoon press conference announcing the signing. "But we're in a position ... at this place and this time that we have to do a little bit more than the 'championship-caliber, win-today' teams. I think that it's kind of a two-fold process. Sometimes you have to give the years to get the player."

Indeed, the high-profile contenders who figured to have a better chance of landing Werth (namely, the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers) weren't willing to give the outfielder more than five years. It wasn't enough for the Nationals to simply outspend them. They had to blow those other offers out of the water.

They also had to convince Werth that they weren't going to be done shopping as soon as he signed the dotted line. At this point, the Nationals remain a 93-loss team that essentially just swapped one middle-of-the-order hitter (Adam Dunn) for another (Werth).

In that regard, Rizzo and Lerner also blew Werth away, convincing him during a recent meeting in Southern California that there are more roster additions to come and more funds to cover those additions.

"I've been given a lot of assurances by the Lerner family and by Mike that we're going to go after some guys that are going to make a difference," Werth said during a conference call this evening. "They're going to put this team to where it needs to be. I'm definitely on board with that."

The Nationals still need a new first baseman (Carlos Pena and Adam LaRoche remain at the top of their shopping list) and some serious pitching help (they're making a real push for right-hander Carl Pavano and continue to explore a trade for either Zack Greinke or Matt Garza).

"We certainly haven't stopped on December 5th trying to improve this ballclub," Rizzo said. "We're going to be aggressive and make aggressive moves. But they're going to be prudent moves that make sense for us to build a championship-caliber organization, not only in '11 but in the long term."

But is there money in the 2011 budget to cover all that?

"There's all the resources that we need to make good, prudent baseball moves," Rizzo said.

Werth may now be the 13th-highest paid player in baseball history, but he's far from the 13th-best player in baseball history. His career (which included previous stops with the Orioles, Blue Jays and Dodgers) really didn't take off until 2008, when the Phillies finally gave him a chance to play every day. He responded with a breakout season, then an All-Star campaign in 2009 and then a .296-average, 27-homer, 85-RBI, 46-double, .921 OPS performance this year that earned him an eighth place finish in the NL MVP vote.

Very good numbers to go along with his above-average defense in right field, but Werth wasn't the star of the Phillies' championship-contending squad. He was a sidekick to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels.

Now, he's "The Man" in Washington, or least one of a select few "Men" who were Nationals uniforms.

"He and Ryan Zimmerman are the two centerpieces of the organization," Rizzo said.

With 126 million contract comes the pressure to live up to that contract. Werth understands that, but he insists he's got the right approach to handling that pressure.

"Every day I'm going to play hard," he said. "I'm going to play the game the right way. I'm going to do the things in the clubhouse and off the field that maybe are overlooked in this game but more often than not create a winning atmosphere."

Ultimately, this contract will be judged on two factors: 1) Does Werth perform at a high enough level, for enough years, to justify his massive salary, and 2) Do the Nationals win while he's a member of this roster?

If Werth's skills decline four years into a seven-year deal, and if the Nationals don't make the other necessary steps to transform from a perennial last-place club to a perennial playoff contender, this will be remembered as a staggeringly bad deal.

But if today's stunning development serves as the launching pad toward bigger and better things for this franchise, it will be remembered as the moment the previously anonymous Nationals informed the rest of the baseball world they were ready to become one of the big boys.