It's old news in the baseball world, happened a few days ago: Jayson Werth, former Phillies right fielder and free agent, agreed to accept $126 million over seven years to play for the Washington Nationals.
The Werth signing has gotten me thinking and I can't for the life of me understand it. It's not about him being worth the money, but about an industry where they can spend hundreds of millions on potential.
I'm very happy for Jayson and his family who, as I once did, reaped the benefits of baseball's free-agent system. He is a multitalented player who was important in the Phillies' recent runs. In my estimation, he has the potential to win multiple MVP awards over the life of his new contract. He can become an elite player. The Nationals are betting on it.
Jayson is a quiet young man. Marches to his own beat, as they say. He is my wife's favorite player — she likes to see what his hair looks like every game.
He enjoyed reasonable success his last two years in Philly because he was left alone to be himself, do his thing his way with low expectations. He played in the shadow of several All-Stars, highly paid teammates, the perfect environment.
In his so-called breakout free agent year, he was a highly touted position player. The Phillies were defending National League pennant winners, consistently on national television. Werth was having a good year while many of his teammates were struggling with injuries, so he got the lion's share of the attention, especially as a free agent to be.
He's durable, can run like a deer, play a Gold Glove right field and hit with power. He can be the real deal, but will he? In Philly, the stars were aligned perfectly for him. Should the Nationals have considered this?
This is what puzzles me about this contract. Are the Nationals in a position to wager $126 million that he can do it all? In Philly, Jayson had men on base on a regular basis with proven players Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Chase Utley stirring it up. He could stumble into 75 RBIs just by playing everyday, but he only drove in 85 last season.
In Washington, the lineup is young and inexperienced, right-handed dominant, and the park is big, so RBIs will not come as easily. RBIs are much tougher when everyone's counting. Jayson now will be the man, the cleanup hitter with the burden of production, far surpassing anything he has experienced. His name will be first on the opposition's "don't let him beat us" list. If the Nationals don't come up with a legit left-handed bat behind him, he will quickly see what Ryan Howard had to deal with in Philly.
Baseball's executives don't understand the responsibility that playing under a contract like this brings, nor do players until they feel it. Is it Werth the weight, so to speak. I know, I felt it, it's really heavy if you are in New York or Philly. Lucky for him, not nearly so in Washington, as attendance will drop as the season progresses, but the baseball world will be watching, and the player feels it.
Is it good business to drop $126 million in the lap of a player who is in the growth stage?
The Phillies had the right plan for Jayson, a plan that worked well for Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Both were slowly adjusted upward. Ryan was forced to use arbitration, then a competitive multiyear deal and then, after Rookie of the Year, MVP award and averaging 135 RBIs a season, he got his bonanza. Not a gamble, a lock.
Utley's path was similar. Up through the Phillies system, slowly climbed the salary ladder, became the best second baseman in the game, will jump to Howard money soon. Again, like buying Apple stock, no risk. This is good management. The Phillies were looking for the same for Jayson. He was one 30-homer/100-RBI year from $100-plus million with Philadelphia, and maybe a couple more championship rings with them. But today the open market is irresistible.
The Nationals are building a nice team. Adam Dunn is gone and boy, would he have cast a nice shadow. Ryan Zimmerman, Ivan Rodriguez and Josh Willingham, and Bryce Harper is not far away. Of course, Stephen Strasburg will be back eventually. There are several young players with great potential, but a journeyman starting staff will not allow any team to contend, especially against the Phillies and Braves.
Maybe they have something up their sleeve, a couple more signings to bolster the middle infield, a first baseman, a left-handed hitter with power, maybe Cliff Lee. Now we're talking contention, but no money in the till to pay the grounds crew.
So if the season started tomorrow, Jayson Werth will make nearly the same a year as the Nationals' starting lineup combined. That can add some pressure, wouldn't you think?
My closing thought on this is that I'd have done the same thing, given the same situation as Jayson. So would most everyone else. He could have stayed in Philly and earned his $100 million, but there's always a chance of a career-ending injury, so you take the money and run.
I guess there is no one at fault here. It's the money-driven world in which we live. Players are commodities and are worth what someone will pay for them.
The Nationals needed a shot in the arm, a player to feature on billboards, they're betting on him as their future star. Now it's his shadow that will be cast on other players, he will be expected to deliver, he will need to face the media music every game, all as the search for the potential the Nationals are betting on him to attain unfolds.