Werewolf Blues, or Jayson Werth Is Forever

Jayson Werth was an obviously questionable signing when the Nationals paid him nine figures in 2010. It looks worse now, but only some of that is on Jayson Werth.
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So it’s mid-October, and we’re still playing baseball in Washington, D.C., which is a thing to be marveled at in and of itself, a thing that as of even maybe two years prior was completely unthinkable. We’ve played eight and a half innings already, been locked in a 1-1 tie for the better part of the evening, and our leadoff hitter, whose proto-Neanderthal facial hair has become more than a little totemic of this scrappy young outfit, is putting in just one hell of an at bat here in the final frame. Down 0-2, he fouls off seven pitches, watches a few more that just miss the zone, and now he’s staring down a payoff pitch from the Cardinals’ Lance Lynn that will—with no outs and our Rookie of the Year wünderbro waiting in the on-deck circle—most assuredly be a belt-high, 94-mile-an-hour four-seamer.

And so it is, and Jayson Werth saw it coming, and so what he did was hit the ever-loving shit out of that four-seam fastball, a stinging line drive shot that traced a shallow ellipse into the visitors’ bullpen in left field, and then flipped his bat just noticeably enough, in any other context, to ruffle the feathers of your more traditionalist, La Russa-n slide-into-first types. But this is the first home playoff win in Washington, D.C. in almost eighty years, the first of what are sure to be many, given the Washington Nationals’ impressive assemblage of homegrown talent and elite frontline starting pitching, and Jayson Werth has just sent this series back to St. Louis for a deciding Game 5, and so no one will begrudge him for showing out a little. It seems, in the moment, as if he’s earned it.


Of course, the coda to that story is notably more somber for baseball fans in the District. Game 5 saw the Nats frivol away a six-run lead in excruciating fashion, a thousand-paper-cut death at the hands of things called Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso. Despite various assurances to the contrary from within the organization, this season has played out like an extended hangover; the more-or-less unchanged Nats flirted with .500 throughout the first half after winning 98 games and strolling to an NL East title the year prior, then saw the flirtation curdle into rejection in the second half. Attrition may explain some of the discrepancy, as the Nats rank in the upper half of the league in games lost to injury. But even when healthy, this edition has been undone by staggering offensive ineptitude. The Nationals should, by all rights, be a very good team. They are decidedly not.

They particularly struggle to reach base: they do so less frequently than anyone but the barely-trying Astros and the aggressively-not-trying Marlins. If you added the payrolls of both those squads together, you’d have a figure that’s less than half of the Nationals’ $118 million outlay. That the Nationals have managed to simultaneously a) field a roster that ranks in the upper third in salary and b) draw valid comparisons to the league’s two replacement-level teams speaks to rotten luck, first-rate front office inefficiency, or some combination thereof. And here, again, in failure as in that not-so-distant triumph, it’s hard not to see Jayson Werth as totemic of the Washington Nationals franchise.  

Jayson Werth was either a really late bloomer or just sort of star-crossed from the start. Drafted out of high school in 1997, he kicked around the Orioles minor league system for five seasons and didn’t find an everyday job until 2004, when he caught on with the Dodgers. Even then, injuries—mostly to his left wrist, carpal fragility being something of a recurring theme for The Werewolf—limited him to fewer than three hundred games in four seasons in L.A. He really made his name—and an obscene amount of money, which, more on that in a moment—in Philadelphia, where he won a World Series in 2008, made an All-Star Game in 2009, and in 2010, at age 31, had his finest all-around season in the majors, OPSing .921 and finishing eighth in the MVP voting. This was fortuitous timing for Werth, a reversal of fortune after what must have been a frustrating first decade of professional baseball. His career high-watermark occurred just as a nascent division rival’s GM was preparing to announce something he called Phase Two.

Mike Rizzo is not old, but he is one of Ye Olde Tyme Baseball Men: a failed prospect-cum-scouting-lifer-cum-subject of fawning profiles like this one, who watches baseball games not with calculators (you dork) but with his own two eyes and big smart heart, and whose involvement in this story mirrors Werth’s so uncannily that it’s tempting to wonder if maybe the two share a kismet, were meant for each other in some cosmic will-of-the-Baseball-Gods-type way.

In 2005, the same year a fastball from A.J. Burnett shattered Werth’s wrist for the first time and consigned him to a two year stint in disabled list purgatory, Rizzo was passed over for the vacant Diamondbacks GM post he felt was rightfully his. That’s when Nats’ GM Jim Bowden hired Rizzo to be his top assistant, and also when the Nats began an almost unprecedented run of success in the MLB draft, a run that—in the interest of fairness to Rizzo, who is not going to be particularly flattered by the next few paragraphs—should at least in part be attributed to the team’s new assistant GM with a background in player development.

And, like Werth, Rizzo got his big break in 2009, when Bowden resigned amid a federal investigation that he had skimmed money from the signing bonuses of Latin American prospects (this is a sad and weird and possibly very icky and vexingly unfinished story unto itself). Now Rizzo was in the ascension, and he couldn’t in his wildest fantasies have picked a better moment: at this point, the Nats owned the rights to (among others) Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Ian Desmond, and Danny Espinosa—all regular contributors to the team’s NL East-winning iteration in 2012—plus two prospects, Brad Peacock and Derek Norris, rated highly enough to later be flipped for Gio Gonzalez. What’s more, they owned the first pick in that year’s MLB draft, which meant they were about to draft a kid named Stephen Strasburg, pretty much unanimously considered the best pitching prospect anyone had seen in a generation.

The Nats were also very, very bad at playing baseball at the Major League level, winning only 59 games in 2009. But this, too, perversely, was actually good news for Rizzo. Because not only did he have yet another no-brainer first overall pick in his pocket (this one would become 17-year-old Bryce Harper, pretty much unanimously considered the best hitting prospect anyone had seen in a generation), but also, as any asset manager will tell you, the key to generating alpha is buying low. The Washington Nationals in 2009 were a blue-chip investment, and Rizzo had gotten in on the ground floor.

Rizzo could have foreseen better than anyone how stacked his farm system was, and that a lot of these couldn’t- to probably-wouldn’t-miss prospects were going to be hitting the majors around the same time. So after the 2010 season, he doubled down on the immediate future of the Washington Nationals by unveiling what he called, in a letter to season ticket holders, “Phase Two,” which involved going out into the free agent market to find proven veterans to complement the cadre of homegrown stars-to-be. Unfortunately for Rizzo and the Nats, he was significantly more adept at the initial development phase than he would prove to be at implementing Phase Two.


Phase Two began on December 5, 2010, when the Nationals inked the 31-year-old Werth to a back-loaded seven-year, $127 million deal that would pay the right-fielder more than $21 million dollars in 2017, when The Werewolf would be in his 40th year. On the basis of Werth’s projected performance over the life of the contract, this agreement was immediately and universally understood to be indefensible. In an article analyzing the Nats’ big move for ESPN, Dan Szymborski, who developed the ZiPS system that’s basically the state of the art of baseball forecasting, cited Werth’s rapidly eroding defensive skills and the less-than-stellar track record of sluggers on the wrong side of 30, concluding, “By the time the rest of the Nationals’ team is ready to challenge for supremacy, Werth’s contract might be what’s preventing the team from making it to the next level.”

There were a few auxiliary arguments to be made for Rizzo’s gambit: most compellingly, that the Nationals had in their first few miserable seasons in Washington acquired a reputation as spendthrifts unable to land a big-name/big-money free agent. Indeed, Rizzo’s first attempt at such a move would have sent Drew Storen and Danny Espinosa to Kansas City in exchange for Zach Greinke, until Greinke invoked his no-trade clause and wound up with the Brewers instead.

So there may have been some merit to demonstrating the Nats’ intent to compete for both marquee free agents and division titles. (Another, more specious/less concrete auxiliary argument for Werth’s contract was that the Nats had weakened the reigning NL East champion Phillies in the process.) But the Nats gave up so much payroll flexibility in signing Werth—who will be making MVP money in his late 30s, at the exact moment when they’d be shelling out increasingly large arbitration awards to the homegrown cadre—that this whole line of defense scanned a lot like a nose-less man explaining, calmly and in detail, the reasonable reasons he’d had for cutting off his nose, mentioning only in passing that it was to spite the rest of his face.

It’s important to evaluate the process and not the outcome, but as bad as the Werth contract looked in 2010, it’s an even uglier duckling now. Szymborski, using the going rate of $4.5 million/WAR in 2010, projected the deal as a $53 million overpay the day it was signed; today, after a miserable first season in Washington and another fracture of his sinistral carpal that cost Werth half of the 2012 season, he estimates the Nationals’ loss at closer to $80 million. That puts it in the same rarified air as baseball’s grossest examples of fiscal irresponsibility, those signed by the likes of Ryan Howard, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols.

Werth came cheaper than those three, but in some ways, his poison pill of a contract is even tougher to swallow. Baseball’s metastasizing revenue streams have yielded a premium on truly special players, since there are more than a few ownership groups willing to pay above-market rates for the game’s best free agents. At various points in their careers, you could describe Howard, A-Rod and Pujols thusly; you could have even argued, at least in the case of the latter two, that they were such spectacular outliers that projected rates of decline wouldn’t apply to them. You’d have been wrong, but you could have at least made the argument.

Not so with Werth: he’d spent the better part of four seasons on the DL and made all of one All-Star appearance. At his best, he was good, not great, and now, he is neither: he is, a recent hot streak aside, a substitute-level right fielder. He is also the highest paid player on the Washington Nationals.


Phase Two didn’t end with Werth. Another win-now move has worked out particularly well: after the 2010 season, Rizzo shipped Peacock and Norris to Miami for Gio Gonzalez, who has been, and looks to continue to be, excellent as a National. But on balance, the bad has outweighed the good, and Rizzo’s subsequent forays into the free agent market have been truly atrocious.

He paid $13 million for one season of a Dan-Haren-in-name-only; he shelled out $28 million over two years for Rafael Soriano, a decidedly non-elite relief pitcher coming off his best season ever; he inked the defensively atrocious Adam LaRoche, who, like Werth, was coming off a huge outlier of a season at age 32, to a two-year, $24 million contract that, incidentally, also pushes Ryan Zimmerman out of position to third base, where he too is increasingly atrocious with the glove. The same guy who managed to get in on the Nats franchise at the perfect moment does not seem to have appreciated his good fortune: indeed, Mike Rizzo, for all his prowess in the draft, seems pathologically committed to purchasing assets at their highest price.

For the last three years, he has been one of Major League Baseball’s greater fools, and he continues to chase bad money with more bad money. The Nationals have added $50 million in salary in the last two years, though they look little better on the field this year than they did in 2011; the 2014 iteration will be more expensive still, even before adding some desperately needed offense. Their bench is a fetid pond full of mosquito larva and pop-ups, they give up more runs on the basepaths than nearly any other team in baseball, and their defense ranks near the bottom of the league in almost every metric -- thanks in part to Werth, who projects as a well below average right fielder for the remainder of his contract.

To be sure, the situation in Washington isn’t exactly dire. The Nats are not comically overpriced like the Dodgers, nor are they tragically decrepit like the Phillies. Baseball is a game of eventual reversion, and this team’s true mean probably lies somewhere between last year’s juggernaut and this season’s mediocrity.

But it didn’t have to be this hard. This is a team blessed with a wealth of baseball’s most valuable asset: the draft-acquired, limited-service-time contributor. The Devil Rays and Orioles excepted, no team has developed more above-average prospects from within in the past five years; unlike the Devil Rays and Orioles, the Nats don’t have to compete in the best division in baseball.

Given the cheap and highly productive labor the Nats will have at their disposal, it’s hard to think of another team better positioned to be a World Series contender for the foreseeable future. Yet here they are—mired in the middle of baseball, scoring runs at a frankly Congressional pace, just six months removed from Davey Johnson’s World-Series-or-Bust bluster, waiting for Phase Three, and with Jayson Werth in the outfield, forever.

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