Shortly after the general managers' meetings in Orlando last month, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo flew with key members of the team's ownership group, including Ted and Mark Lerner, to meet with Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth at agent Scott Boras' corporate campus in Newport Beach, Calif. It's an office where Rizzo has done an increasing amount of high-profile business over the last two seasons, but on this occasion, he was here for a slightly different reason: Rizzo wanted one of the offseason's premier free agents to spend the rest of his prime with the Nationals.
The Nationals contingent flew west with a detailed sales pitch for the 31-year-old. They talked to Werth about their plans "next week, next month, next year, three years from now and five years from now," Rizzo said. They told Werth about his future teammates that are currently developing in their minor league system. They talked about the team's market share and TV ratings, and they told him about the schools where he and his wife, Julia, could send their two young children.
They assured him they were ready to win, prepared to spend money on their big-league roster. Ted Lerner told Werth the story of his family's rise to become self-made billionaires. Then, they proved their point by offering Werth piles of cash, to such great degree that they outpaced his other offers by tens of millions, and topped it off with the first no-trade clause they've ever given a player.
And Werth listened.
He was introduced at Nationals Park on Wednesday in no small part because of that meeting, a chance for Rizzo to convince the outfielder, who has played in two of the last three World Series and won a ring in 2008, to take a leap of faith and sign with a team that has finished last in the National League East for the last three seasons. Rizzo has developed a good rapport with agents from his days as a scouting director, when he was talking to them about contracts for draft picks that appear small by comparison, and the Nationals have grown very comfortable with the prospect of putting Rizzo in a room and letting him make his case.
Like Rizzo did with Boras just before Stephen Strasburg signed in 2009, he flew west to do just that, and got his man.
"The thing about this team is, I think there's some pieces of the puzzle that could be put together and make this team a winner," Werth said. "I was assured by the Lerner family and Mike Rizzo that they're going to take steps needed to go get those players and fill the roster accordingly - not with just anybody, but the right talented guy and the right mix, the person that will make the clubhouse a good place. That was important to me, and that was one of the things that led me to sign here."
On several occasions Wednesday, Werth pointed out the promise the Nationals had made to him to be competitive, almost like a groom recites wedding vows in front of witnesses who will remember them. But there didn't seem to be much persuasion necessary; Rizzo was speaking in as bold of terms as ever on Wednesday, vowing to turn things around in the near future.
"He doesn't like losing. I certainly don't like losing," Rizzo said. "My job is to put a winner on the field, and we're hell-bent on doing that."
Rizzo was quick to tick off the accomplishments during his tenure at just about every level but the majors: he pointed to the "record amounts of money" the Nationals have spent to get Strasburg and Bryce Harper in the last two drafts, and said the team's minor-league depth has improved markedly in the last two drafts. But the reality is this: With a five-year contract, the general manager now has a window in which he must deliver a winner or lose his job, and he couldn't afford to wait for the Nationals' farm system to produce the necessary players all by itself.
He needed a free agent to take the first step, and in Werth, he found a kindred spirit: a "dirtbag," as Rizzo called him, who the general manager praised for being unafraid to get his jersey dirty, despite his rise to All-Star status.
In many ways, Werth and Rizzo's paths are similar - the outfielder battled injuries and bounced around before finally flourishing in Philadelphia, and Rizzo spent more than two decades in scouting before rising to higher-profile positions. They're a pair of late bloomers, and on Werth, Rizzo is betting a great deal of his equity as a GM.
â€¨When Werth arrives in the Nationals Park clubhouse next March, there will be another example of a player who made a similar move: Ivan Rodriguez, who signed with the 119-loss Detroit Tigers after winning a World Series in Florida in 2003. Both players are Boras clients, and Rodriguez's arrival in Detroit signaled the franchise's willingness to spend money. Other Boras clients soon followed, and the Tigers were in the World Series by 2006.
And with Washington, Boras said, other clients of his have already noticed a difference.
"When Jayson signed, the first thing (players) all asked me was, 'Oh, so Washington's stepping up? They're taking those steps? They're looking to win now?'" Boras said. "In the player community, when you gain that kind of street credit, you have taken a huge step as far as what players will look at your organization, and how they'll look at it differently."
Then, Boras said, "The lights are on the billboard."
The Nationals don't know if other players will see them yet, but that's the gamble they're taking by making Werth their signature free agent. If it doesn't work, there will be high-profile failures to account for, but if it does, history has shown the payoff can come quickly.
Whichever way this ends, it will have started with a meeting in California.