The beauty of “What If?” Wednesdays is that we can either go deep into the past or delve into the not-so-distant, er, distance. Regardless of when the space/time continuum is disturbed - just recently or long-term - there are always potential ramifications to be pored over and pondered, discussed and dissected.
Today, we set the way-back machine for just over a year ago, Dec. 5, 2010, to be exact, with a destination for Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (better known to casual observers as the site of baseball’s Winter Meetings, which took over a couple of sprawling Disney resorts outside of Orlando). Before the meetings got officially under way - and when I say before, I mean that the media interview room wasn’t even set up yet, which briefly delayed the announcement I’m going to write about - the Nationals shocked the baseball universe with news that they were signing free agent right fielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal.
Ignore for a moment that the 32-year-old Werth hit just .232, his lowest mark as a regular player and worst since 2003, with 20 homers and 58 RBIs in his first season as a National. You can talk all you want about his 11 outfield assists, his strong defense and his 19 stolen bases. The Nationals were expecting a lot more offensively from Werth, whose offensive performance turned out to be, well, somewhat offensive. Suddenly, he looked a lot more like the guy who flamed out as a first-round draft pick for the Orioles, couldn’t cut it in Toronto and had a three-year stint with the Dodgers end with a season spent on the disabled list with a wrist injury. Those four years with the Phillies - where he hit 95 homers, drove in 300 runs and batted .282 to set himself up for a big payday - seemed like a distant memory.
But what if - and that’s the reason we’re all here reading today, isn’t it? - the Nationals hadn’t made that extreme commitment to Werth? How might that have impacted the past 13 or so months in NatsTown, where hopeful fans are anticipating a season in more enthusiastic fashion than they’ve ever before since the team relocated from Montreal before the 2005 campaign?
There’s an old saying in baseball that everything comes down to money, so that’s probably a good place to start our discussion. If the Nats hadn’t committed that much to Werth - with observers wondering why they’d overpay so highly for a guy who would be 38 by the end of his contract ended - there’s really no way of determining exactly where they’d be on today’s baseball landscape.
Perhaps they’d have had enough money to go the extra year (not to mention millions) for free agent left-hander Mark Buehrle this winter, instead of seeing him opt for the Marlins’ superior offer. Maybe they’d have already bagged Prince Fielder to solve their search for a middle-of-the-order slugger. Or perhaps they’d have been battling with the Angels and Marlins over the services of first baseman Albert Pujols, making Fielder a moot point. Heck, with money to spend and holes to fill, there’s no telling who they might have been in on, especially in a frenzied free agent market with lots of big names and the usual big spenders strangely silent.
Or, just maybe, they wouldn’t have been in the conversation at all.
Calculated risk or not, the deal the Nationals hammered out with Werth did more than raise eyebrows from their peers. It also raised the Nationals’ profile, from a sad sack bunch used to 100-loss seasons and top overall draft picks to a team with a future and a road map of how to get there. Taken as a single transaction, the Werth contract may have made some people wonder what the Lerner family and general manager Mike Rizzo were thinking; taken in context with the drafts that produced Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Bryce Harper, not to mention the presence of Ryan Zimmerman as a franchise cornerstone, the outlay was merely another piece of the puzzle the braintrust down on South Capitol Street hoped would pay big dividends. And it helped further cement their strong relationship with agent Scott Boras.
Werth’s arrival raised expectations, too, from people who equate big money spent with the need to win almost instantaneously. But Werth wasn’t an instant gratification move; instead it was a salvo fired to make sure the rest of the game’s entrenched establishment knew that the Nationals were serious about the turnaround they were trying to orchestrate. In baseball’s game of give and take, the Nats had to give someone a big deal - yes, they overpaid - in order to be taken seriously. The confluence of events made Werth, a classic late bloomer who took the better part of a decade to finally realize his potential (albeit not as a catcher, where he was drafted by the Orioles), a marked man.
Without Werth, the Nationals might have operated in virtual anonymity for most of last season - until Strasburg returned in September for some post-Tommy John starts to bolster sagging attendance. Without Werth, Rizzo might have had trouble being taken seriously as a player in his dealings with premier free agent targets. Without Werth, the Nationals aren’t even talking to Fielder, much less in a position to sign him instead of being used as leverage to exact a better deal elsewhere (which could still happen). Without Werth, who became an important presence in the clubhouse, especially after Davey Johnson took over following Jim Riggleman’s resignation, the Nationals probably aren’t knocking at the door of .500 in the final week of 2011, or trading for Gio Gonzalez three weeks ago and signing him to a long-term extension.
Time will tell whether the marriage between Werth and the Nationals will be mutually beneficial. Without him, maybe Nyjer Morgan isn’t traded last spring, or the Nationals are trying to figure out how to fill their center field hole with a spaceholder, an underperforming incumbent or an unexciting free agent. The Werth deal is a gamble, to be sure - it’s heavily backloaded, and he’ll make $20 million in 2014 and $21 million a year for the final three years of the deal, making him virtually unable to be traded, even if he were to waive the no-trade protection the contract affords him. By that time, the Nationals hope he’ll be a heady veteran on the downside of a stellar career and that the night they surprised all of baseball with their bold, decisive move was actually the start of something big.
Whaddaya think?: First, a tip of the cap to regular reader Swooned By June, who suggested this week’s “What If?” Wednesday topic by way of a comment posted on last week’s entry. If you’ve got a topic you’d like to see us tackle, post it below. Now, onto Werth. Do you feel better about the contract he got now that the Nationals are on the verge of contending? Do you think he’ll become an albatross around the team’s neck by the last few years of the deal? Would you have rather seen the Nationals invest their money elsewhere? And if so, where?