Nationals’ Jayson Werth needs to think before he talks


Washington Nationals Jayson Werth (28) watches as second baseman Danny Espinosa can't handle a popup off the bat of Milwaukee Brewers' Rickie Weeks during the fifth inning Tuesday. (Morry Gash/AP)
Jason Reid
Columnist May 26, 2011

Fortunately for the Washington Nationals, right fielder Jayson Werth has it all figured out.

He has thoughts about how the struggling ballclub could improve. He has determined it’s time for change. He has ideas, though he’s not yet prepared to share details of his plan.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

And you know what else Werth has? He apparently has jokes.

Because in making cryptic comments Wednesday about the Nationals’ problems, Werth probably was just trying to be funny. Laughter is sometimes the best medicine, and the Nationals needed a boost after their horrid 1-7 trip dropped them to 21-28.

Speaking with reporters following the team’s 6-4 loss to Milwaukee, Werth undoubtedly was trying out a new comedy bit, because he couldn’t have been serious about other deficiencies while he’s batting .254 in the first season of a seven-year, $126 million contract.

If the highest-paid player in franchise history wants to address a rapidly deteriorating situation other than to apologize for hitting .205 with runners in scoring position, he should do so directly. If Werth has a problem with the way Manager Jim Riggleman is running the team, he should say so. But cryptically intimating in postgame quotes that others aren’t doing their jobs is unacceptable — or at least it should be to Nationals management.

Werth knows how this works. He has been in the big leagues since 2002. He comes from a baseball family.

By slyly indicating the Nationals are a mess internally, Werth essentially applied gasoline to a spreading fire. The wheels were already off the bus as a result of the team’s ineptitude on offense and General Manager Mike Rizzo’s flawed offseason plan — and Werth’s actions likely pushed someone closer to the cliff’s edge.

Although Werth didn’t name names, he still said a lot.

Werth spoke in code about things being “pretty obvious” while calling for change. Then there was his line about the importance of developing the club’s younger players “regardless of if we’re winning or losing.”

From my experience covering baseball, when frustrated players use those types of phrases, they’re usually alluding to the on-field staff. Werth should have just drawn an arrow to Riggleman’s office. It would have been quicker.

Riggleman is in a tough spot. His authority in the clubhouse has been challenged during Washington’s slide, and working without a guaranteed contract for next season (the club holds an option) only makes it harder.

Rizzo is tied to Werth. Rizzo overpaid by $18 million or so for Werth — who has hit 30 home runs only once in his career and has never driven in at least 100 runs — and gave him the club’s first no-trade clause.

Often after high-profile veterans speak out during difficult times, general managers and managers have closed-door meetings. Clubhouse unity is most important during a bad stretch, and the Nationals are falling apart on and off the field before the first week of June.

Regardless of how he views Riggleman or anyone else in uniform, Werth was out of line for hinting that others are underperforming. Does this guy own a mirror?

The Nationals are paying Werth to lead as much as they are to hit, run and field, and Werth has been good defensively and efficient on the base paths. Two out of four, however, doesn’t cut it when you’re a cornerstone piece of a franchise that’s thinking big.

The arrival of Werth was supposed to signal an arrival of sorts for the Nationals. It would show, management believed, the club’s determination to become a viable destination for top players.

That’s why Rizzo didn’t care about paying star wages for someone who has never had top billing. The Nationals had to start somewhere to begin building a new identity, and Werth fit in nicely with Rizzo’s long-term plan centered on pitching and defense.

Problem is, a team that has the third-worst on-base percentage in Major League Baseball doesn’t need a $126 million player on its roster. It would have made more sense for Rizzo to spread it around, signing a few players to bolster the offense and bench.

At the time of the deal, it was highly questionable whether the signing made sense. Now, it looks downright ridiculous, especially considering Werth’s lack of leadership with his thinly veiled comments.

Under contract for another six seasons, Werth, obviously, has time to get it right, and there’s time for the Nats to develop or acquire some help for him. But right now, he’s not needed here, and definitely not at his price when there’s such roster imbalance and no immediate offense on the way this season other than Ryan Zimmerman’s return from the disabled list.

Rizzo has been quoted as saying Werth should feel a certain sense of responsibility to the Nationals for the contract he received. He should set a positive example in everything he does, remembering the spotlight is always on him.

I requested to interview Rizzo about Werth’s comments but he declined to speak, probably thinking he would only further inflame an already embarrassing situation. Perhaps Werth will figure that out next time.

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