Jayson Werth talks Nationals’ expectations, the sting from Game 5, Bryce Harper’s position, and more

(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Before he came to the Nationals, Jayson Werth won a World Series and played on a Phillies team that captured four straight division titles. All of those winners could not compare, in his mind, to the collection of talent the Nationals have assembled this year. In fact, no other team could, either.

“Has there ever been a team that’s this complete on paper?” Werth said, standing in the Nationals’ clubhouse after he reported for spring training. “I’m not really a guy that looks at stuff like that. You look around the room where we’re at, who we got, I feel pretty good about it. Then people say, ‘You got to stay healthy.’ Well, we weren’t too healthy last year, and we won [98 games]. We got guys on the bench that are probably ready to play every day somewhere. I’d say, top to bottom, you got to feel good about it. But you still got to go out there and play. We got the guys I’m happy to go to war with.”

After additions and subtractions this offseason, Werth is officially the old hand in the Nationals’ clubhouse. He’ll turn 34 in May, making him the oldest player among those likely to make the 25-man roster. His voice has carried weight in the Nationals’ clubhouse since the day he arrived, and that has never been more true than now.

Today, Werth held court for roughly 20 minutes, hitting on various topics, starting with the sting of how last year ended.

“I know for me, that Game 5 is still pretty fresh,” Werth said. “I’d say that’s probably the case for most guys in here. That’s okay. I’m okay with that. That’s just part of it. You go through your career, you’ve got good wins and bad wins.”

Werth added his walk-off homer to win Game 4 remained “pretty fresh, too.” But Werth said he thought about the final game “daily” this winter. Most Nationals have tried to downplay the effect their wrenching loss will have on the spring. Werth embraced it as a motivational factor.

“There’s definitely times that it’ll pop into my head and I’ll kick something or cuss,” Werth said. “When you’re that close to something … I’m a baseball player. I’ve been playing baseball my whole life. I’ve wanted to do nothing else but play baseball. So like I said – ‘World Series or bust,’ well no [kidding]. That’s the slogan every year since I was 8 years old.

“When you get that close and you can taste it and something like that happens, that’s going to stick with me. That’ll probably stick with me till I die. That’s okay. That’s not a big deal. It’s the things that drive you. You wake up in the morning pissed off ready to work out because of stuff like that. It’s just part of being a ballplayer.”

Werth will enter the year with his surgically repaired wrist still not back to full strength. Werth broke the wrist in early May last year, and doctors have told him the full recovery will take 18 to 24 months. He can still be productive – last year, he hit .312/.394/.441 upon returning for the final two months of the season. He said he would wait and see if the wrist would affect his spring routine.

“It’s coming along,” Werth said. “It’s better than it was [at NatsFest]. It’s actually gotten a lot better since the last time we talked. …  It’s definitely not as strong as it was [before the injury]. I’ve been hitting. It doesn’t bother me. I feel strong. Obviously, the numbers are going to speak for themselves. I definitely didn’t have as much power when I came back from the injury as before the injury. I felt like I did a pretty good job. I played at a pretty good level. I expect just to get better.”

The Nationals have decided how Werth and Bryce Harper will be aligned next to Denard Span in center field. Werth has a clear opinion that, Manager Davey Johnson said, will provide the answer. He believes Harper should continue learning the outfield in left.

“There were some things he’s got to work on,” Werth said. “It’s just a matter of time. When that time comes, I’ll move to left and stay there the rest of the way probably. We’re not there yet.

“There’s just a lot more responsibility in right. There’s an experience factor to playing the outfield. Left is where you can get by with the least amount of experience. That’s where Bryce is right now. He’s an inexperienced big league outfielder. That’s not any knock on his ability by any means. He’s extremely talented. And I think he is, right now, a very good outfielder. As time goes on, he will be even better. This could happen fairly quickly. He could progress at a relatively quick rate, like he does everything else. I think it’s more up to him than it is me. I’m not standing in his way by any means. When I mess around with him, I always tell him, ‘Defensive liabilities play left.’ That’s where we’re at right now.”

Werth mostly kept his thoughts on the lineup – and he has plenty – to himself. He did make a good point about the top of the order. He said it wouldn’t make sense for Harper to hit second behind Span, and not only because that would put two left-handed hitters atop the lineup. He considered the ninth spot, where a pinch-hitter will most often be batting late in game. The Nationals’ best pinch-hitter is Chad Tracy, who also lefty. So, putting Span-Harper at 1-2 would set up three lefties to hit consecutively late in games, giving the opposing manager an easy shot to bring in a lefty reliever.

Finally, Werth gave an insightful take on the difference between having Michael Morse and Span. He pointed out the biggest difference will not just be in style, but also the way Johnson can have more options in late-game situations.

“We’re all going to miss Mikey,” Werth said. “He’s a great player and has done a great job for us. You insert Span at the top and I think what it gives us the ability to do … in a lot of games, Mikey would have to get double-switched out to get a defensive replacement in the outfield just so we could have more speed out there. I think that, to me, will probably be the biggest …yeah, you’re going to lose his bat, but you’re going to get Span’s bat, so it’s a little different there. But if you throw the defense into it, you don’t have to double-switch, you don’t have to miss a player, not waste a player, but you don’t have to use a bench guy, that’s an upgrade. Not knocking Mikey by any means, but just for our team, I think that’s an upgrade.

“And I think that’s probably why [General Manager Mike Rizzo] did that, knowing full well that if we ended up signing [Adam] LaRoche, that meant that Mikey wasn’t going to end up being on the team. Again, it’s not a knock on Mikey, it just makes our team better. And I think … we’ll see what happens with Mikey. It’ll be interesting see if he stays there all year in Seattle or what they do, but we’ll all be watching closely. And he’ll be missed around here. Not only on the field, but in the clubhouse, on the plane, trains, different places where he excelled.”

And that is one more example of how deeply Werth understands the game.

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