Jayson Werth put his Curly W yesterday afternoon, assisted by three students from Amidon-Bowen Elementary school in Southwest Washington, in front of a room packed with journalists and Nationals front office and ownership staff. Since the signing on December 5th, more bad puns have been published, more hands have been wrung about the length and amount of his contract, and more questions about the future of the Nationals have been asked than at just about any point in the Nationals’ history.
When he slid that jersey on, shrugging it into place and buttoning it together, Werth assumed the pressures and obligations of the future of the Nationals. He didn’t do it lightly, and his answers before the assembled press show the sort of understanding and seriousness that you’d want to see from a player in the heart of the organization’s future plans. Werth took 30 minutes of questions from the assembled press before breaking off for smaller interviews, and after 45 minutes of that, met with reporters again for 5-10 minutes in the Clubhouse before they declared a full lid on the day and set Werth loose to find a new home for his family in the area.
“Baseball is a funny thing,” Werth began when asked about why he came to Washington. He continued throughout the day to reference a new commitment from the Lerner family and the front office of the Nationals to curbing the franchise’s troubled start in the District. Werth brushed aside concerns about undue pressure with all manner of sports metaphors that have become commonplace in the world of athlete-speak.
Werth represents a new direction for the Nationals, one that means spending a large amount of the Lerner family war chest on talented players designed to turn the Nationals into a big league club capable of competing at the highest level in the National League East. Scott Boras, Werth’s player representative and renowned super agent, says that the kind of reputation the Nationals have begun to amass with their signings of Harper, Strasburg and Werth are the sort of thing that catches players’ eyes. They’re asking him, “So, Washington’s stepping up?” and he’s pointing to all of the recent contract efforts from the front office.
Revealed amid the hoopla today was the no-trade clause in Werth’s contract, one of the last hurdles to bringing him to DC. General Manager Mike Rizzo expressed a bit of frustration that they’d had to grant Werth’s request, and said it was their very last sticking point in negotiations. Jayson Werth is a Washington National until 2017, come hell or high water, and if this is to be the beginning of the turnaround from 90-loss seasons, that will be Mike Rizzo’s crowning achievement. However, if Werth turns into an Albert Belle or a Barry Zito, it’s the sort of thing that will sink his career as well. Rizzo’s made a calculated gamble on Jayson Werth, the sort of move that you hope is the deep-seated intuition of a career baseball man. In the end, it’s the field that will tell the tale.
Sure, Mike Rizzo has every reason to be excited about Jayson Werth, and on Wednesday, he laid that out in stark relief for all to see:
“This is the package that we were looking for going into the off-season. We wanted to get better skilled players that play both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively. We’ve got a guy here who can hit 30-plus home runs, drive in 100 runs, play Gold Glove defense, steal you 20 bases, lead in the clubhouse and be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter. The bigger the game, the better he’s played in his career.”
Sure, those stats sound fantastic, but they’re still just numbers on a page, for the most part. While Werth’s record is good, and his growth over the last few years in Philly is remarkable, for the Lerners’ “Phase Two” operations to be successful, Werth will have to produce at his 2010 pace for at least the next four seasons, probably five. Can he do that? Werth thinks so. He pointed to the record of his grandfather Ducky Schofield, and his uncle Dick Schofield, who played for 19 and 13 seasons respectively, and while Werth has already outproduced their careers, combined, he has dreams of playing into his early forties.
Remember also that Nationals Park was a dream come true for Werth last season, where he hit .419 and slugged .806, putting two balls over the fence, and hitting six doubles into the power alleys. Some of that, yes, is the Nationals’ rough pitching, but this is a place that Werth can do well, with deep alleys that cater to his swing, and a lineup with Zimmerman and Willingham that will both put a lot on his shoulders, but also give him some protection at the plate.
The test for Werth will come not in April, but in the middle of summer. As the season wears on, and as Washington falls behind in the standings (even the most optimistic writer among us believes the Nationals will just barely flirt with .500 in 2011, and likely won’t make it past 70 wins), will Werth be a spark in the clubhouse? The Nationals have bet the farm on that answer being “Yes, absolutely.” We saw a lot of that quiet determination today, something we see regularly in Strasburg and Zimmerman, on the dais at Nationals Park, but it will be another thing entirely to see that same fire in the midst of a rough season.
Werth spoke at length today about the future of the franchise, and about the young talent that the Nationals have acquired over the last few year as “pieces of a puzzle,” and I believe that to be an apt metaphor. Right now, the Nationals are an incomplete picture, with parts coming together, but with large holes amid the fabric (one need only read Pete Kerzel’s piece on Jason Marquis today to be reminded of the problems with the starting pitching) and an unsure path toward greatness.
The proof begins on March 31st, when the Braves come to Washington to start the season.