Early arrival Werth ready put disappointing 2011 behind him

VIERA, Fla. - Think Jayson Werth’s first season in Washington left a sour taste in your mouth? You’ve got nothing on Werth, who didn’t exactly perform like a player who had signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals, then struggled to find his form, often appearing to be battling himself.

“Last year was a little odd,” Werth, one of the position players to arrive early at spring training, told reporters Saturday. “You are coming into a new place. I really didn’t know anybody, new setting, new everything. ... Bottom line is, my swing was never where it needed to be. It started bad and it didn’t get any better. I’ve been playing baseball since I was 4 years old. I’ve had really good seasons, I had really bad seasons. I’ve had average seasons. Last year was just a bad season. Whatever. I’m over it. I’m ready to play ball, play 162 games.”

Last year’s less-than-scintillating performance - a .232/.330/.389 slash line - was only part of the story. Werth’s 20 homers and 58 RBIs were his lowest power totals in his four seasons as a regular. Not surprisingly, he missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006, and the 80-81 record the Nationals recorded was nothing more than a hollow achievement for a player accustomed to much better.

“I definitely watched everything that went on in the postseason. I missed it. That is a fun experience,” Werth said. “These guys on the Nationals are young and hungry. Maybe they can experience it here sooner rather than later. It’s why you play the game starting in Little League. It’s every kid’s dream. That’s why you play and that’s where you want to be. I was able to experience it from the other side this winter. I was outside looking in.”

Maybe that helps explain Werth’s early arrival at Space Coast Stadium. He was taking batting practice with teammate Danny Espinosa a day before pitchers and catchers were due to report - almost a week before he’s required to show up and participate in drills.

After spending the winter watching the Nationals boost their pitching staff with the additions of free agent Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez via trade, Werth is eager to get to work. The Nationals may still be searching for a leadoff hitter who can play center field - a position Werth could end up manning - but the additions on the heels of the club’s best finish since 2005 have Werth hopeful.

“Washington has never had a winning ballclub - at least not in recent history,” Werth said. “We were one game away (from .500). In my eyes, last year was a semi-success because the direction has changed. We did a full 180. We’ll have Davey Johnson for a full year.”

And Werth is determined that he’ll contribute more in 2012. Though he assumed a leadership role in the clubhouse last season, those duties were carried on behind closed doors - and obscured by the poor offensive performance.

Espinosa, the Nats’ second baseman, thinks Werth got a bad rap because of his struggles at the plate. Espinosa was appreciative of the veteran presence Werth added to a clubhouse in need of one.

“Definitely a leader,” Espinosa said when asked how much Werth’s voice and actions helped his teammates. “Great attitude - even with his struggles last year, it didn’t bother him. ... He knows how to win. He’s been on winning teams, he’s been around that environment. When you’re around the environment of losing, sometimes people get accustomed to it and you don’t really know how to win. So to bring a guy like him in who knows how to win is huge for a team. That can change the whole attitude in the clubhouse.”

Were the expectations placed on Werth too lofty?

“He had a lot thrown at him, too much for any ballplayer. ... For anyone to step into that role, that’s almost too much to take on for one guy ... I think he’s fine. It was just a season of adjustment,” Espinosa explained.

Werth is ready to turn the page.

“There were no injuries or anything lasting that carried over into the offseason,” Werth said. “In that regard, it was a success. That was the biggest thing. People can say what they want about last year. Until you go through it, until you walk into those shoes, I don’t know how you could really comment.”

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