Sunday, December 05, 2010

Whither Jayson Werth?

So Jayson Werth signing with Les Expos has brought all sorts of chuckles and condescension because the deal is really long and it's for more money than was expected.

But the uniformity of the response is puzzling. Do they really think this deal is so preposterous? One friend described it as "almost as bad as the Ryan Howard deal."

That, of course, would be more accurately characterized as "not even in the same stratosphere as the Ryan Howard contract, which paid a player who is not as good as Jayson Werth far more money than Werth will earn, two years before any extension was necessary. There is simply no precedent for the stupidity of the Ryan Howard signing. I'm not even sure there is a contract that rivals its sheer stupidity looking without hindsight (maybe Vernon Wells, Mike Hampton and Darren Dreifort, but all of those were contracts that conceivably could have worked out. With Howard's contract, that's not even a plausible scenario.) In retrospect, Mike Hampton, Darren Dreifort and Chan Ho Park might get to that level. Everything about Howard is already fading -- his eye (he's hemorrhaged nearly 50 walks over the last three seasons), his power (his slugging's down .154 points since its peak, and his home runs were down 14 just from '09-10), his durability (he hit the DL for, I believe, the first time ever in 2010). Werth is still in his ascendancy, even if he is old. Now 2010 may well be his peak year, but at least it gives Nationals fans a rational reason to believe he could still have years equivalent to it going forward.

As for Werth, I'm not inclined to agree that the deal is atrocious. It's not great, to be sure, but major free agent signings never look to be great deals. Any time there's a 9-digit offer, it's got a high probability of blowing up. Both the amount of money and the number of years make it a very high probability of being a disappointment.

But if we look at this contract through the lens of what it is -- a team trying to buy its way toward success, it's a reasonable investment. The Nationals had to offer more money and more years. That has to be a given. They had two alternatives -- overpay in years and dollars, or not sign any free agents that would represent a marked upgrade from Mike Morse. The Nationals have to overpay for non-marquee free agents like (ahem) Jason Marquis, so of course they have to overpay for a five-tool player. They theoretically had their chance to make a market-price deal and they said "no thanks, we've seen enough of Adam Dunn."

However, the Nationals are taking a serious risk of making this deal insane by deciding to trade Josh Willingham. Willingham is a genuine offensive producer. Letting him go would completely negate whatever gains the team had made by adding Werth to replace Adam Dunn.

Most of the backlash really strikes me as condescension. I managed to listen to about five seconds of WIP listener feedback before I reviled everyone who had ever been to a Phillies game (keep in mind I have partial season tickets). It was person after person saying "have fun winning 69 games for the next seven years, Jayson." In fact, I think that's why this deal is getting the response it is. If the Angels or Red Sox had signed Werth to the same contract, it'd just be an accepted overpayment to get a player that's basically in a sample size of three in this market -- Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, and Adrian Beltre were the only available free agents who really seemed like guarantees to make their teams better. They didn't have gaping holes in their games (Dunn), weren't on the verge of retirement/death (Konerko), and they hit over .200 (Pena). But the response to Werth's signing seems likely to be driven more by the team that signed the contract than the terms of the contract itself.

Werth isn't Ryan Howard. He's got a game that seems likely to age gracefully. Even as his legs go and he loses the speed and defense part of his game, he's still going to leave you with a solid power-hitting left fielder. He's got a lot of decay in his game to get down to the kind of player that the Phillies are still signing to 3-year deals (I think a 38 year old Werth is going to look a lot like a 38-year-old Ibanez, actually - better than average, but not the answer to any of your questions). So he'll decay to average, not decay to disaster the way that Boog Howard will.

Lastly, I think it's worth it to overpay because right now, there's a big credibility gap in Washington. They lost their opportunity to fill the seats when Strasburg's elbow blew out. Right now, their biggest dates for attendance are dates when popular visitors come to the stadium -- the Phillies fans outnumber the Nats fans for Phillies/Nationals games. And I think they recognize the shelf life of their team. If they don't get the fans in the next two or three years, it's likely that this franchise is never going to cut it in Washington. So it makes sense to go all in while they still have Strasburg and they still have Bryce Harper. The short-term fixes are the ones that don't make sense -- plugging in Pudge Rodriguez remains as irrational as the day they signed him. Signing Jayson Werth -- that makes sense.

I believe the Nationals have some really useful pieces. Their rotation isn't great, it's certainly patchwork. But Jordan Zimmermann looked electric at times before he needed Tommy John surgery. Collin Balester should bounce back and Strasburg will be back by 2012. But the pitchers aren't there on the market this year, so they can either push off even the slimmest hopes of .500 or try to shore up the difference elsewhere. And, in reality, I think this signing helps on the pitching front as well.

Before this signing, Cliff Lee signing in Washington was a 0% probability. Now, maybe it's a 1%. Maybe this is a tipping point for Brandon Webb to say Washington's a better reclamation alternative. Zimmerman and Werth is a good core to a lineup, both offensively and defensively. Nyjer Morgan will bounce back to 2009 level performance/non-insanity, Desmond showed promise in his first year, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen are a solid beginning to a bullpen.

I don't think Werth is a franchise player, so this is a lot of money. In the end, Nationals fans may live to regret the contract that's been signed in 2016 and 2017. But first, the Nationals need to ensure they have fans. This is a step toward that.

For all the condescension the bitter WIP callers had to offer, it's hardly a safe bet that the Phillies will finish ahead of the Nationals beyond 2011. They're an old team getting older with a lot of years on contracts that they are already regretting or will in the very near future. Jimmy Rollins may be the oldest 31 year old on the planet, Ryan Howard has regressed rapidly from the once-astonishing hitter he was, and Chase Utley began to appear human. They have pitching, yes, but Halladay and Oswalt are on the wrong side of 30 and have endured a lot of abuse and I'm skeptical there's anyone in the Phillies farm system that could come up and be as successful as Luis Atilano or Craig Stammen if Halladay or Oswalt go down. If Werth cared only about winning, he'd have gone to New York or Boston. While his Octobers will probably be free for at least four of the seven years of his contract, I'd speculate that the same would be true even if he'd stayed.

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