WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Last May 11, Jayson Werth was batting .196 and wondering whether his thrice-broken left wrist was ever going to be strong enough to help him power through his swing. Six years into the seven-year, $126 million contract he signed in December 2010, Werth often looked overmatched, and some wondered whether he’d ever be a regular contributor again.
“After like the first six weeks, I was somewhat happy that Dusty (Baker) stuck with me,” Werth recalled Sunday after the Nationals had finished their first full-squad workout of spring training. “This game, you start getting older and the minute you don’t produce, you get thrown into the fire. But I think Dusty believed in me and saw that I still had a lot left in the tank and stuck with me. I think I proved him right as the season went on, and the postseason. I’ve always been a slow starter and a second-half player. ... Don’t usually start that slow. But I felt like I came on pretty good in the second half and I think I showed in the playoffs that I could still play.”
Always slow out of the blocks, even Werth was concerned by his offensive malaise. But he caught fire in June, slashing .321/.438/.488 and hit eight of his 21 home runs in August. His .244/.335/.417 season-ending slash might not look particularly impressive, but Werth looked like his old, productive self in the National League Division Series loss to the Dodgers, putting together a .389/.522/.667 line, a strong finish to a season that started with frustration at the plate.
“I was frustrated with the way I was playing, but I don’t think that I was ever doubting myself,” Werth said. “Every time that I’ve been hit and broke my wrist, it’s taken time to get the strength back. You get hit and there’s a lot more to it than ... the bone healing or there’s some psychological factors on some level. You go through it and it’s natural. You’ve seen guys who get hit in the face or get hit in the head and sometimes it takes a while to get back.
“For me, the years after that I’ve had the bad wrist injuries when I’ve gotten hit by balls and broken my wrist, the one time early in my career, it took four years for me to get back to playing every day. So sometimes they just take time to heal. But I don’t feel like I’m in a place where I’m not going to be able to play and produce every day; I feel like I’ve got three, four, five good years left.”
This, however, could be his last season in D.C. Werth is a free agent after the 2017 campaign and barring an overture to return - and he says there have been no discussions with the Nationals to this point - he has just one more year to get the Nats to baseball’s promised land. But until that happens, don’t expect Werth to start reminiscing about fond memories and planning for old timer’s games.
“I look at this as when I signed here this team was a season away from (being) a 100-loss team and now since I’ve been here, we’re one of the best teams in baseball statistically, win-loss record,” he said. “I’m not going to call it a success just yet because I think we need to win ... in the postseason for me to call it a success, and I’m hopeful that we got that opportunity again this year.”
If there’s a theme to how Werth is approaching this season, it’s all about unfinished business. But realistically, how much can the Nationals expect out of a guy who will turn 38 in May, has hit just .235 in his past two seasons and has defensive limitations in left field?
“I wasn’t here at the beginning, but Jayson Werth’s signing was really the start of the excellence in this organization,” Baker said. “And there are a lot of people that maligned the signing across baseball. But Jayson’s not only been productive, he’s been one of the key leaders and figures on this team. And the player that I see ... he hasn’t gained weight, he’s probably in better shape now than ever, he’s determined to win, he loves Washington and his legs are good. And if your legs are good, then you got action on being productive - and very productive.”
But Baker knows better than to play Werth so much that he runs an aging but useful player into the ground. Baker met yesterday with Werth to discuss how many games he’d like to see him play. While Baker won’t reveal the particulars of that discussion, he thinks he can count on Werth for more than 125 games. Werth has played 150, 81, 129, 147, 88 and 143 games in his six seasons with Washington.
“Jayson and I have a very good relationship,” Baker said. “I’m honest with him and he’s honest with me. So what he’s going to do this year, I don’t know. I think he’s going to have a better year than last year. Because the year before, wasn’t he hurt the year before? Right. And if he stays healthy, then he’s another year removed from whatever was bothering him the year before, so I see him and (Ryan Zimmerman) having outstanding years for us and it’s going to be needed because we’re going to need production and leadership on the field and in the clubhouse.”
Werth doesn’t want to get ahead of himself, thinking about a possible move to the American League, where he could play outfield part time and serve as a designated hitter a couple of days a week to prolong his career. But he’s at least intrigued by the idea, assuming he can’t work out some kind of extension with the Nationals. The crux of any discussion will be playing time, and Werth thinks he can still contribute on a regular basis.
“I still want to play every day, but if you had the opportunity to DH a couple of days a week and that puts you in that 150 (games) instead of 140 ... But we’re talking a whole year from now, so my focus is right here, right now, this team,” he said. “We joked when I got here that halfway through the first season, some of the people in the media kinda joked that my contract, they called it the seven-year war. Now here we are in year seven of the seven-year war. I feel like I got a lot to prove and I still feel like I got a lot in the tank.”
But a lot of how that seven years is viewed will be determined by whether the Nationals can advance to the National League Championship Series for the first time in team history. Getting to the playoffs is all well and good, but three first-round exits in five years after winning NL East titles have left a bad taste in a lot of mouths.
“Five-game series are tough anyways,” Werth said. “You feel like if we can just get through those five games and get to a seven-game series, we’re going to match up well with whoever we play. But that’s the format. You’ve gotta do it. We’ve definitely had some bad losses and some devastating losses. We’ve had some winnable games and some big opportunities. I want to win. I want nothing more for these guys in here and the city to experience what it’s like for a team to win the World Series, and I still have that opportunity.”
When he was signed, the hope was that Werth could be a transformative player for a franchise on the verge of reaching the next level. Entering the seventh and final year of that deal, the same goal remains.
“I say the whole thing kind of hangs on this season,” Werth said. “Look, there’s going to be baseball in D.C. long after I’m gone. People are going to play and people are going to talk about players and what have you. But my career is kind of pinned to this season. We’ll see what happens.”