By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 12:43 AM
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. - The Washington Nationals signed slugging free agent right fielder Jayson Werth to by far the richest contract in franchise history Sunday evening, a sudden move that enhanced their credibility as an immediate contender, robbed the division rival Philadelphia Phillies of one of their best players and added a potentially burdensome, long-term financial responsibility that had many in the baseball industry immediately debating the merits of the deal.
In the wake of losing first baseman Adam Dunn in free agency, the Nationals signed Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract that will pay Werth an average of $18 million per year, the 13th-largest contract in baseball history. "A monumental day," said the Nationals spokesman who introduced General Manager Mike Rizzo at a news conference at the winter meetings here. "A statement," Manager Jim Riggleman said.
Rizzo called it an unofficial beginning to "Phase 2" of the Nationals, from moving to building a farm system to expecting to win. Werth, the Nationals believe, will replace Dunn's offense while providing above-average defense in right field and leadership in the clubhouse.
"He'll be a centerpiece of our ballclub on the field and in the clubhouse," Rizzo said. "It kind of exemplifies Phase 2 of the Washington Nationals' process. Phase 1 was a scouting-and-player development, build-the-farm-system type of program. We feel that we're well on our way of doing that. We feel that now, it's the time to go to this second phase and really compete for division titles and championships."
Werth leaves a team, the Phillies, that has done that routinely, going to the playoffs four straight years, advancing to two World Series and winning one. Werth was undaunted by playing for Washington, in part because of a meeting with the Lerner family.
"I think in a short time, we're going to surprise a lot of people," Werth said. "I've been given a lot of assurance by the Lerner family and by Mike that we're going to go after some guys that are going to make a difference, that are going to put this team where it needs to be. . . . I came here to win."
In signing Werth, the Nationals took a substantial risk. Werth's contract will run until the 2018 season, at which point he will be turning 39. Rizzo believes Werth will continue improving as he enters his mid-30s, which would buck a trend deeply established in baseball history. Rizzo also acknowledged that a team with the Nationals' reputation, having lost 298 games in three seasons, sometimes must pay more than more successful competitors. And so the Nationals paid more than anyone expected.
"I think anyone is a little uncomfortable with giving anyone a seven-year deal," Rizzo said. "But we're in a position with the Washington Nationals at this place and this time that we have to do a little bit more than the championship-caliber, win-today teams. I think that it's kind of a two-fold process. Sometimes you have to give the years to get the player. We feel, with that said, this is the type of guy to give a long-term deal with. He takes such good care of his body. Our evaluators have seen him improve the last three years to a point where we still his best days are still ahead of him."
Some around the game thought the contract was excessive.
"It makes some of our contracts look pretty good," Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson told New York reporters. "That's a long time and a lot of money. I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington."
Werth's addition also spreads the influence of superagent Scott Boras on the franchise. Werth joins first overall draft picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper as Boras clients who have signed recent megadeals with the Nationals. Boras also represents a handful of other Nationals players and free agent first baseman Carlos Pena, whom the Nationals could sign to replace Dunn at first base.
Werth hired Boras this summer, and "right off the bat we were talking about possible suitors. The Nationals were at the top of the list."
"The Lerners and I don't share Thanksgiving dinner," Boras said. "But we've shared a lot of dinners lately, that's for sure."
Said Rizzo: "It's always more comfortable dealing with someone when you have a relationship with them. We've done several deals in the past. We know each other's style. We know which buttons to push and which buttons not to push."
Werth, Rizzo said, entered the offseason as the Nationals' prime free agent target. Rizzo scouted Werth in Springfield, Ill., when Werth was a high schooler, and even back then Rizzo loved Werth's athleticism. When Werth played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Riggleman was the team's bench coach, and he gave Rizzo a rousing recommendation.
On plane rides this season, when talk between Rizzo and Riggleman drifted to potential free agents, Werth's name kept coming up. When it came time to sign him, the Nationals did all they could - if you add up all the money the Washington/Montreal franchise spent on free agents the past 20 years, it would fall short of Werth's contract by roughly $4 million.
"It makes a statement that it's not always about money," Riggleman said. "We were criticized for not bringing Adam Dunn back, and there were a lot of comments that it was about money. Well, obviously, it's not about money, because we just gave more money. The Lerners have been doing everything they can. This puts an exclamation point on it."
Said Rizzo: "It's a lot of money. It's a lot of years. We feel this is the start of something."