Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Jayson Werth will get better, but will that be enough for Nats fans?

Rob Carr/Getty Images - Washington right fielder Jayson Werth is a solid player, but probably never will live up to what fans expect of him because of his huge contract.

If Washington Nationals fans want a glimpse of the next seven years with Jayson Werth, they probably got to see it this week when ex-Nat Alfonso Soriano came to town as a Chicago Cub.

Sometimes, baseball is so simple, but people make it so hard. Werth, who signed for seven years for $126 million, and Soriano, who signed for $136 million for eight years after the 2006 season, have identical .832 OPS figures — that’s slugging percentage plus on-base percentage. That’s who they are. It’s their baseball DNA.

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In five years as a Cub, Soriano’s OPS has been .826. With age, injuries have cost him about 30 games a season, but he’s still hit 120 homers. He remains fast, but doesn’t steal anymore — 53 stolen bases as a Cub after 41 in one season as a Nat. When you sign him at 30, what do you expect? That he’ll always be healthy, never slow down?

But Chicago fans have been miserable with him because they want a $136-million toy that does not exist, rather than an actual player named Soriano.

The Cubs paid a career-year price for Soriano after he had 46 homers, a best-ever .911 OPS and 22 outfield assists as a Nat. Washington wouldn’t touch the $75 million that was considered market price in summer of 2006. Nobody imagined $136 million for Soriano any more than $126 million seemed sane for Werth. But that’s what the Cubs paid him.

Last winter, the Nats became the Cubs: They wanted to make a splash, prove to future free agents and their fans that they would compete. They “had to have” Werth and thus overbid, just as the Cubs had to have Soriano and were willing to overpay.

Like the Cubs, the Nats paid for a player that did not exist — or existed for only one season: In 2010, Werth’s slash line was .296/.388/.532.

In reality, Werth, in his 15th year as a pro, is a .266/.362/.470 hitter. That’s him. He strikes out, draws walks, fights off tons of pitches and hits it two miles to all fields when he runs into one. Werth also has 20-steal speed and is a better-than-average right fielder. And he had a great pedigree: a stunning .989 OPS in 10 postseason series as well as a grandfather and uncle who were big-leaguers.

Pressure? Werth had eaten it up, whether from tough Philly fans, the October spotlight or grabbing a World Series ring. In theory, he brought presence beyond his stats, just as Soriano was 40-40 charismatic back then.

Werth’s last month has been wrenching. On June 4, he had shaken off a slump to reach .254/.350/.434 — one hot series from his career norm. But with Ryan Zimmerman out, couldn’t he do more, please?

So, he tried. He even moved to leadoff, where he floundered completely and fell into a huge slump. Since then, he has hit .155.

Other offseason acquisitions in Boston, Chicago and Atlanta are having even worse seasons: $143 million Carl Crawford (.243), $54 million Adam Dunn (.167) and $60 million Dan Uggla (.178). All hear boos. But Werth, falling to .221, has hit the pits along with them.

Maybe he hit bottom Tuesday: 0 for 4, two strikeouts and seven stranded runners. I went out to the right field bleachers to see how he and the fans were coping. Not well.

After he grounded into a double play to end the fifth inning, Werth went to right, crouched on his haunches and stared at the ground. For the entire top of the sixth, he never took his hands off his knees on any pitch.

Even when a Cub homered to left, he never budged, hands still on knees. Nearby, Rick Ankiel was in the alert ready position on every pitch, anticipating. The scoreboard should’ve read: Baseball 999, Werth 0.

Behind him in the bleachers, no Nats fans heckled, but a knot of Cubs fans got in licks. “Werth, what happened to you?” yelled one. “You made more for that groundout than I will this year.”

Crazy? Over seven years, Werth actually will make more than $30,000 per at-bat.

Then a strange thing happened: They played another inning. The next time Werth trotted to right field, he noticed three fans in the front row of the bleachers cheering his arrival, one in a Werth jersey (the only No. 28 in sight) and, a few seats away, a husband in a Nats hat with his wife beside him. Everybody mute except three adults standing and clapping in the midst of his disaster game.

Werth no longer squatted in a fetal position or glared at the ground. His posture on pitches qualified as normal. He was ready.

He hand-signaled to reposition fielders. When Laynce Nix, playing first base for the second time since high school, made a decent play, Werth held up a finger, for “one out,” but didn’t take it down until Nix noticed him.

Then Werth pointed the finger at Nix — “nice play.” When Tyler Clippard escaped a jam with a strikeout, Werth actually skipped as the hitter missed and broke into a jog to the dugout.

The change of mood didn’t alter his hitting as Werth soon grounded out to kill a rally. “Groundout, groundout,” the Cubs fans chanted on his return. Why, they could have been bleacher bums chanting at Soriano. But Werth’s one-inning funk was broken.

The lone fan in the Werth jersey is not a lunatic. He’s Steve Scott of Rockville, a Dell account executive for the legislative branch, including both houses of Congress. Beside him sat three co-workers.

“Steve’s a season ticket holder. When he brought us tonight, he told us Werth threw him a ball before every game,” Travis Hennecke said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ We weren’t here two minutes, Werth threw him a ball.”

You sure must have a lot of balls, I said to the lone No. 28.

“No,” said Scott. “He only throws it to me if I promise to give it to a kid.”

We can do this the hard way, as they have in Wrigley Field, where everybody makes themselves miserable because they paid $136 million for a .832 OPS guy who has given the Cubs 120 homers, an .826 OPS and (shock) gradually gotten five years older.

Or we can do it the right way and measure Werth against what he has proved he is: a winner, a very good player, way better than he has been so far.

But he’s not a team-carrying giant, regardless of the numbers in his contract, one that every one of us would leap to sign.

 
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