Lerners gamble with Washington Nationals' signing of Jayson Werth

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 12:05 AM

The Lerners just burned $30 million.

Congratulations. Money up in flames seldom looked so good.

Signing Jayson Werth for more than he's worth is a fine gamble - not for baseball, which is howling at the Nationals' extravagance, but for Washington. Sometimes, you have to jump-start the future.

To the shocked executives of rich teams who are bashing the Nats for overbidding in giving Werth $126 million for seven years, the proper retort is: Tough luck.

Everybody in baseball loves a low-budget loser as a rival. Nothing succeeds like weak competition. The last thing teams such as the Red Sox, Phillies and Mets want to see is a truly rich owner, worth $2.5 billion, who (finally) decides he would really like to see a winning team in his home town before he reaches 90.

"When two rival GMs in your own division are saying that you overspent, you must be doing something right," Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "Did we go an extra year and another $18 million beyond anybody else? Yeah, we did. I'm not ashamed."

All owners of bad teams are described with one of two words: cheap or dumb. In a day, owner Ted Lerner has removed himself from the first category. Now, from all quarters, he's hearing the second insult. It took about an instant for that chorus to change.

However, if the next piece of the Nats' plan falls in place - signing a free agent first baseman, either Carlos Pena (28 homers) or Adam LaRoche (100 RBI) - Lerner will get smart in a hurry because the Nats can talk about threatening .500 next season.

The Nats aren't done. They can't be. Essentially swapping departed Adam Dunn for Werth while adding big long-tail contract risk just does not work, either as team building or public relations. But getting Werth plus Pena/LaRoche actually looks like a plan. You get a better lineup, better defense at two spots and a security blanket to help get Ryan Zimmerman's deal extended some day.

The key was Werth. The Nats had to have the big fish because they had lost the big Dunn-key. Now, they'll claim Pena/LaRoche is just one option. It's not; it's a necessity. For now, enjoy Werth. Lerner is.

"He was very enthusiastic" when Werth agreed, Rizzo said. "As enthusiastic as he can be when he's giving up $126 million."

At least for one brief greedy moment, Nationals fans - the Washington fans who haven't been in a postseason since the 1933 World Series - can say what Yankees fans said every time the late George Steinbrenner overpaid for a piece that fit his team's puzzle: "You wanted him. We got him. We'll worry about the '17 payroll when it gets here. Until then, go pound sand."

Baseball sometimes feels like a closed hierarchical club. How dare the Nationals crash the party? It's an ambush. So, they must be crazy. But the Nats aren't nuts. Even at FanGraphs, where stat nerds discover heaven, the first in-depth analysis using "advanced metrics" says that Werth's worth $118 million for seven years.

If the Red Sox had signed Werth for $90 million for five years, it would've been hailed. The Nats believe Boston had a six-year, $108 million deal on the table briefly when their trade talks with San Diego over Adrian Gonzalez hit a snag. That wouldn't be too out of line with the seven-year, $120 million deal Matt Holliday got last winter. Will we ever know? The fog of war - negotiating disinformation and rewritten history - makes such points moot.

For the Nats, it was simple. By the '16 and '17 seasons, they will have succeeded in building a winner, with a bigger fan base that generates higher attendance and revenues, with players such as Werth, Zimmerman, Strasburg, Harper and a half-dozen fine '10 rookies at its core. Or they won't.

If they succeed, the extra investment in Werth will look like a bargain. If they don't, does it really matter whether you jump off the roof of a five-, six- or seven-story building? Either way, the Lerners will be billionaires. And they had the guts to take the leap.

"This was the year to strike for a real star-type position player. We could have finished second again," added Rizzo, who now has the mixed blessing of yet another Scott Boras client at the center of his team. "Do we expect seven all-star seasons? No. If Jayson has five seasons like the last few years, we'll be fine with it. Until the day we're on a level field with the Red Sox, we're going to have to grease the wheels, go the extra year, be more creative."

Franchises occasionally have a window of opportunity. When it comes, you take your shot, or else you're not even in the game. Why bother to buy a team? Why build a publicly financed park?

There are no guarantees. But the Nats' window is obvious. Odds are nearly 90 percent that Strasburg will recover fully. Harper, at 18, looked excellent in the Arizona Fall League. But no prospect is a cinch. You seldom see a better rookie class than Ian Desmond, Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos and Roger Bernadina. But it's just potential.

Of course, Werth is no lock either. Hitting in Philly in a powerhouse lineup helped him. But not very much, the stats say. He's a diet and fitness freak. But he also has had injuries. If you want gloom, look at the players he most resembles statistically at age 32: Brad Hawpe, Jeffery Hammonds, Tommy Henrich, Chet Laabs.

To me, the player Werth resembles most - a graceful right fielder with a big arm and power - is Dwight Evans of the Red Sox. How did Evans do once he reached Werth's age? The next seven years, Evans averaged 25 homers, 97 RBI and an .865 OPS with two gold gloves. That proves exactly nothing, but seven years can work.

To a degree, the Nats just paid tens of millions to compensate for the last five years of pain their fans endured. Sometimes you have to stop the bleeding and the best tourniquet is cash.

But it's also true that the Nats now have one man in change of their baseball vision: Rizzo. In the past, Jim Bowden, Stan Kasten and Rizzo sometimes disagreed, then had to do a floor show before the Nats' board to sell their preferences. Even though Rizzo was Kasten's first hire and his handpicked GM, they still had friendly disagreements with big consequences, such as whether to keep Dunn.

What's clear is that a faster, more athletic and more defensively oriented team - with Dunn gone, Werth aboard and Pena/LaRoche probably coming - is what Rizzo, his scouts and his stat analysts have decided that they want.

Just days ago, we asked whether Rizzo would get the financial support to execute the best ideas of the team's baseball minds. Would the Lerners, knowing that baseball is a dark forest of scary, exciting variables - nothing whatsoever like building a nice sensible mall - finally decide to jump into the game?

Now we have 126 million answers - all of them "Yes."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company