Werth returns to camp, believes he can return to past form

VIERA, Fla. - Jayson Werth was back at Space Coast Stadium this morning, still under the weather but feeling better than he did Thursday, when the Nationals sent him home so his illness wouldn't spread through the clubhouse.

A day or two off at this early stage of the spring won't do anything to set Werth back in his preparation for the season. But as he approaches 37, with a surgically repaired right shoulder he suggested still isn't 100 percent and a history of freak-yet-serious left wrist injuries, the veteran outfielder knows there are plenty who question how much he has left in the tank.

To those doubters, Werth had a firm response.

"The stuff I've been reading, it seems like I'm already done," he said. "I don't know. You guys might have a different idea than I do, but I'm gonna play this thing out as long as I can."

He later added: "If I'm healthy, I don't see why I can't do what I've always done.

Werth-Swings-Gray-Sidebar.jpgHealth, of course, is the key qualifier to that statement. Werth dealt with only a couple of minor ailments in 2013-14, and the end result was a combined .304 batting average, .394 on-base percentage, .887 OPS and an average of 138 games played.

Then came the 2015 season, which bore no resemblance to the previous two. Or, really, just about any other season in his career since he became an everyday player in Philadelphia in 2007.

It began with January surgery to repair the AC joint in his right shoulder, which left him way behind the eight ball in spring training and forced him to spend the season's first week on the disabled list. Then, just as he was starting to catch up and discover his swing, he was drilled in the left wrist with a pitch May 15 in San Diego, fracturing several small bones, an injury that required another 2 1/2-month DL stint.

Though he returned to finish out the season, Werth never found his groove. The final numbers - a .221 batting average, .302 on-base percentage, .685 OPS, 12 homers, 42 RBIs - were among the worst of his career.

"Last year was pretty much a wash for me," he said.

Werth attributes those numbers to a combination of injuries and some bad luck. He rattled off several well-struck balls in key situations that required highlight-reel plays by opposing defenders, then suggested he can return to the form he displayed through most of his career if he can keep himself on the field in 2016.

Can he actually do that? The wrist has fully healed now, so that's not an issue. The shoulder? That's a little less certain.

"The shoulder injury is tricky, because I've never started a season with what I had," he said. "We'll have to take it ... it had to take time. We'll have to see once games start going, but so far, so good. I've never been in that situation. Obviously I'm older, but I still feel like I'm going to be able to produce and be myself and play my game."

As observant as anybody on the roster, Werth knows the Nationals pursued a couple of high-profile, free agent outfielders this winter. Jason Heyward and Yoenis Cespedes ultimately didn't come to Washington, but the club's pursuit of both suggested at least some dissatisfaction with the composition of its outfield.

Werth, while remaining confident in his own status, insisted he would have welcomed either acquisition.

"If we want to improve the team, I think we should," he said. "Until I prove that I can't play, I think I'll be in left field, but I think it was great we were going after those guys. I don't know how competitive the offers were, and what the truth is on all that, but any time you go out and play for a team that's trying to acquire big-time free agents and to improve the team, I think that's a good thing."

There are two years remaining on Werth's then-club-record $126 million contract. He'll turn 37 in May. The Nationals knew all along he wouldn't be the same player at the end of his time in D.C. as he would be at the start.

But until the day comes when he's no longer employed by the Nats, Werth insists he'll give everything he has to this franchise.

"I remember I had a pitching coach in the minor leagues who played in the big leagues," he said. "He would come home at night from working out all day, and his wife would be like: 'What are you doing? What's wrong with you?' And he'd be like: 'I'm getting ready for war.' That was my first year in pro ball, and I remember that guy saying that. I've thought of it every year since. We're gonna go to battle this year. We've got a lot to prove. I want to be a part of it."

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