The Ultimate Jayson Werth Debate

Jayson Werth
Jayson Werth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The two brothers have been arguing about Jayson Werth since he first signed his name to a Nationals contract.  We finally put our argument into written words.

Justin: Jayson Werth’s contract was universally panned when he signed it over two years ago.  With four years and over $80 million to go after this season, it looks even worse.  Jayson Werth cannot stay on the field for an extended period of time (see his wrist injury last season and hamstring injury this season).  Even when he’s been on the field, he hasn’t really produced.  He has a combined WAR of only 2.2 in three seasons and has actually produced below league average since he’s been in Washington, according to Baseball Reference.  Moreover, Werth is 34 years old.  His production and health will decline further as he ages.  Two and a half years later, can you defend this contract in any way?

Jason: Game 4 NLDS mic drop…… Besides giving the team and their fans the single greatest moment in team history, the contract can be easily defended both at the time and in retrospect.  It takes a little more situational awareness than most people are willing to exert, so get ready to think more about building a team and less about statistics read on the laptop in your mother’s basement.

There are multiple questions to answer:

Did it make sense?

Does it still make sense?

And finally, why is he the most valuable player on the team?  Yes I think he is.

Which one do you want me to answer first?

Justin: Let’s start at the beginning.  Did it make sense?

Jason: The arguments for signing Werth break into 4 categories

No one would give them the time of day.

I went back to press that off season.  The team everyone expected Werth to go to was the Red Sox.  If not them, then the Tigers or the White Sox.  All teams that run large payrolls.  No one saw the Nats signing Werth because no veteran would want to come to such a sad sack franchise.  Not only did the Nats have to compete on price and years with the big budget teams, they had to have a player who could think strategic enough to realize the Nats were close to competing.  Remember Greinke turned down a trade and we have no idea what other veterans didn’t even return phone calls from Rizzo.

The farm system had no one.

The National’s farm system was the worst in baseball when they moved to DC and by 2011 it hadn’t made much ground in developing corner outfield talent.  According to Baseball America the top outfield prospect was Eury Perez, who is a slap hitting AAAA CF three years later.  Tyler Moore, Lombardozzi and Koburnus are examples of players the Nats are trying to convert, again three years later.  Rizzo was going to need to go the Free Agent route, which is always the expensive way to go.  Remember Nick Swisher signed a 4 year 56 million deal and has never had a season close to what Werth did in Philly.

He was a 20 million player.

I want to answer this by quoting from Fangraphs which attempts to put a $ value on a player.  His last three years in Philly were valued at 22.2, 21.4 and 19.7 million.  So, the prior three years he was a 21.1 million average player.

Signing him hurt the Phillies.

This is the most petty reason, because he was probably gone anyway, but the Phillies have not won since he left the team and their outfield has been a mess of replacement players.  There is another reason, but I will withhold that for the time being.

Justin:  All four of your reasons are unconvincing.  There are two questions to consider when signing a free agent: what will he do on the field, and how much do we have to pay him?

You say that Werth was a $20 million player from 2008-10, but baseball players are like stocks: past performance does not guarantee future performance. In the case of Werth, it was predictable given his age and injury history that he would decline in performance (he has declined far more than anyone thought).  The most troubling thing is he will be paid $20 million a year until he is 38.  Based on even conservative estimates, he will be mostly dead money in 2016-17.

If the Washington Nationals truly needed a free agent outfielder in 2011 (they didn’t–they were at least a year from contention), they should have opted for something less than $126 million.

Jason:  I understand that my four perfectly reasoned arguments are not enough to knock down your straw men.  So, I will now address your concerns.

Straw Man 1: They should have signed an outfield free agent for less money and fewer years.

This argument works best in the hypothetical.  MLB free agents do not come up in a pop up menu that lets you adjust the variables of players until the skill and years match the teams desire.  I actually pulled the corner outfield free agent list for the last three years and it is scary.  Free agent are usually 1 year contract journey men that work year to year, think Jeremy Hermida, Austin Kerns or Andruw Jones.  These are guys who are fighting to rebottle past glories.  The other players are the multi-year contract expensive players, think Carl Crawford, Josh Hamilton, Shane Victorino, Cody Ross, or Yoenis Cespedes.

I have already established that there was no in-house option that would even play replacement level ball.  The option was to pay the price for Werth or rely on a hit or miss journeyman player.

Straw Man 2:  They paid too much to Werth.

The Nationals paid the market rate for Werth. What was the market rate you ask?  More than the next team that wanted him.  We can assume based on the ridiculous contract the Red Sox gave Carl Crawford, they had a hefty offer on the table.  Would Rizzo have preferred less money and a shorter contract?  Yes.  Second place in the Jayson Werth contract game was Jeff Francoeur or Scott Podsednik.  In other words, there was a huge drop off.  Most of the shock in the baseball community about the Werth contract was about how dare the Nats act like the big boys, they never had a winning season.

Now to address some of your other concerns specifically.  I remember Rizzo being asked about the age issue.  His answer was straight forward.  He viewed Werth’s skill set as one that would not decrease too significantly over the course of the contract.  His skill set is power (not 40 HR, but 20-30) and quality at bats.  Both were present on his game 4 walk off home run.  He broke his wrist last year;  guess what, that happens.

One thing you fail to grasp is that his age and experience was one of the driving reasons he was signed to begin with.  The Washington Nationals franchise had no leader/captain like a Jeter, Rollins, or Chipper. The team was notorious for having bad clubhouses and bad character guys. Werth is the guy who when a minor league player showed up with neon green shoe laces he tells the guy to go change.  Werth’s most important role on the team is as mentor to Bryce Harper.  The development of Harper is the most important thing for the long term success of the team. Werth is the guy who put his stuff in the locker next to the rookie so he wouldn’t get veteran privileges before he earned them.  Werth is the first player Harper mentions when he talks about his biggest influences. Without a mentor, who knows what kind of trouble a brash 19 year-old might get in. Harper won over most of baseball last year with his work ethic, one Werth helped him develop.

Werth also has the unofficial role as ambassador for the team. He lives in the DC area, attends Caps games and works out at Nats Park. When free agents or draft picks sign with the team it is Worth that meets and gives a tour of the facilities

Next, the contract value. It is 18 mil a year.  The Nats structured the deal to be back weighted so it more like a balloon payment. Trolls will say the team owes him 80 or so million (and by trolls I mean you).  Probably the same guys who think the Bonilla contract was an amazing deal and Soriano signed a 14 mil a year deal.  Finance guys will tell you the way the Nats structured the contract was smart and the net present value of the contract was 92 mil.

Justin:  The going rate for a babysitter is usually $20 an hour plus money for pizza.  The Nationals apparently decided to pay $126 million over seven years.  Question: as the Nationals “Team Mom”, is Jayson Werth supposed to provide the orange slices and rice krispie treats, or does Davey Johnson do that?

All the team leader/team ambassador stuff sounds good, but the Nationals need runs, because runs win baseball games (or so Peter Brand told me in Moneyball).  The Nationals are losing games this season because they’re not scoring runs.  The Nationals could have the best clubhouse chemistry in the world, but it won’t matter if they’re not getting on base, and then driving those runners home.  At $18 million a year, Jayson Werth should be doing both (Werth had 5 home runs last year and a .314 OBP this year).

It’s interesting you used Carl Crawford’s name twice in defending the Jayson Werth contract, since that’s one of the few contracts that’s worse.  But guess what the Red Sox did?  They dumped it the moment they found a team dumb enough to take it (the Dodgers).  And then they replaced him with one of those mid-level free agents you, for some reason, don’t believe exist.  They picked up Shane Victorino for 3 years and $39 million dollars, and he’s having a pretty productive season, at least more productive than 2013 Jayson Werth.  Now the Red Sox can keep him or trade him for other assets since his overall contract value isn’t that high.  More importantly, he wont kill the Sox payroll if he turns out to be a total bum.  If Werth continues to decline, the Nationals might lose an actual franchise cornerstone (like Jordan Zimmerman or Ian Desmond) because they can’t afford it.

Plus, Victorino seems like a nice guy.  I’m sure he’d bring in Rice Krispie treats if the team asked him to.

Jason:  Before I get into Werth’s actual performance on the field, I need to address your Shane Victorino point.  He only hit free agency last year.  He is a good Major League player if you are fine with a light hitting (less than league average for his position) good glove player.  An interesting note, Victoreno signed for 13 mil a year, Werth’s contract at a discount cash basis is also 13 mil a year.  Maybe the best option for the Nats in RF would have been some kind of never ending platoon like the A’s use.  This might have brought better production with the right players but not the intangibles Werth brings to the team.

Lets look as Werth production as a National starting with last year.  I am not going to address your cherry picked stats.  Last year he played in half the team’s games.  After injuring his wrist he was able to come back, but with limited power due to his recovery time line.  He batted lead off and proved to have the best OBP of any RF in Major League Baseball with 300 ABs.  He also batted a clean .300, which lead the team.  His skill set for working at bats and getting on base was a crucial piece for a team that lacked a lead off hitter.  Before you say, that he is being paid as a middle of the order bat, let me remind you he is being paid to help the team score runs; a guy who looks like Jonah Hill said something similar.  Werth was also brought to the team to provide post season and division winning experience.  Well, they won the division and he gave the team a signature moment worth posting on a giant billboard in the park in the playoffs.

I won’t pretend that his 2011 season was what he or the Nats were expecting.  He was a league average left fielder that year, good base running and good defense made him a 2.3 War or a 10 million dollar player.  Not great, but not as bad a Nick Markakis or  Jason Heyward.  He was on par with Torii Hunter, a player who’s contract for 7 years 116 with 2 teams compares.  Hunter’s 5 year contract with the Angels had a higher discounted annual average than Werth.  Hunter also put up his biggest offensive year at age 36, so it is not a given that Werth will see a drop in production as he ages.

The big picture is that neither of us pays the players contracts.  The Lerners are the richest owners in baseball and are in no danger of putting Mets or Marlins type restrictions on the team.  This is only an issue if the Werth contact prevents that team from retaining their own players, signing free agents or preventing a better player from playing.  Werth is signed through 2018.  Desmond and Zimmermann are available for FA in 16, that will be your first test.  They are the first cornerstone type players that will be due large contracts.  Strasburg is a FA in 17, Gio and Harper in 19; notice how nicely that works out with Werth coming off the books exactly at the right time.   2017 and 2018 could be luxury cap type teams assuming Strasburg is resigned, and it is not a given that the team will want to resign him anyway.  If the players and the team are good enough to warrant big contracts, then we as fans just had few great years of baseball.

My point is, calm down about the Werth contract.  He is a pretty good player and has a history of great offensive production.  He is providing the missing leadership on a young talented team. The Nats have no one in the farm system Werth is preventing from playing.   His contract isn’t impacting the team in the short run and probably won’t negatively impact the team in the long run.  I actually think the bigger issue is the MASN contract negotiations with MLB and Os for the long term competitiveness of the team, especially when the Phillies Comcast contract comes up in 2015.

Justin: Let him go to the Phillies in 2015.  Do you think the fans would take him back?

Jason: Clown question, bro.


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