By Dave Sheinin
Sunday, February 20, 2011; D04
IN CLEARWATER, FLA. The mourning period in Philadelphia over the loss of Jayson Werth lasted exactly nine days. On December 5, the 31-year-old slugger signed with the Washington Nationals, ending a productive four-year run for the Phillies that coincided precisely with the franchise's four straight division titles. Then, on December 14, the grieving over Werth's departure ended with the arrival of this bit of news:
The Phillies took the money Werth turned down, added a lot more money, and pried ace left-hander Cliff Lee out of the hands of the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees, at a price of $120 million over five years - a development that stunned baseball and made every Phillies fan from Conshohocken to Runnemede a whole lot less nostalgic for the lanky, graceful, wild-bearded right fielder who had gone away.
"Getting Cliff," Phillies closer Brad Lidge said this week, "kind of made everybody forget about losing Werth."
It is that way still, some two months later, as the Phillies prepare to launch another defense of their NL East title. Veteran Raul Ibanez has moved into Werth's corner locker in the home clubhouse at Bright House Field. All the media attention is centered upon the Phillies' quartet of aces, led by Lee. If Werth's name is uttered at all, it is typically in the context of the high hopes the organization has for top prospect Domonic Brown, who will largely replace Werth in right field.
"We're real excited about this kid," Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said of Brown. "We're going to give him a good opportunity. It's just like when Jayson was here. He hit his way into the lineup, and he stayed. That's how baseball is."At peace without Werth
It feels almost strange, as if there ought to be a greater void felt in the Phillies' clubhouse. After all, Werth, 31, was the team's No. 5 hitter, a guy who hit 87 homers over the last three seasons, a right-handed counterbalance to all the Phillies' lefty swingers, an excellent defensive player with a cannon of an arm.
He is also, as of December 5, the owner of the 14th-largest contract in baseball history, after the Nationals handed him an industry-rocking, seven-year $126 million contract. Shouldn't someone of that stature get more than a shrug and an "oh well" when his name is invoked in his old workplace? And shouldn't it have been more of a priority to get him re-signed in the first place, before he hit free agency?
Undoubtedly, the Phillies' ambivalence - if that's what it is - stems from the massiveness of Werth's contract with the Nationals. Much as the Nationals themselves felt about Alfonso Soriano's departure in 2006 - it would have been nice to keep him, but not at the price ($136 million over seven years from the Chicago Cubs) he ultimately got - the Phillies are at peace with Werth's leaving.
And as they are quick to point out, they made an offer to Werth at the end - believed to be for $48 million over three years, with a vesting option for a fourth year that would have pushed the total value over $60 million - that seemed reasonable at the time, but in retrospect had no chance of being accepted.
"What we thought was market value [for him] and what others thought was market value were not the same," General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "We felt like we made a significant offer. Clearly, it was surpassed and Jayson, to his credit - he got an opportunity to make a lot of money, and don't think anyone would have turned that money down."
Still, the Phillies are an organization that goes to great lengths to lock up its core players in long-term deals. Almost every significant player on their team is in the midst of a contract of three or more years in length. But as Werth approached free agency, there was little momentum for a new deal, from the winter of 2009-10 - as he approached his "walk" year on the heels of a 32-homer season in 2009 - through the entirety of the 2010 season.
Finally, whatever shred of hope there was for an extension disappeared in mid-September when Werth dropped his old agent and hired notorious negotiator Scott Boras. Game over.
"I think when he hired Scott, it kind of gave us an indication that it was more an issue of getting the top dollar than it was staying in Philly," Amaro said. "That was what I got out of it. . . . [Werth is] a very productive player and was a good person in our clubhouse, but it's not the first time in baseball history a player took his free agency."
Added Manuel: "He's a guy who thinks he's a good player, and his expectations on himself are high. In some ways, he's a little cocky, which is good. He wanted to go out there and see what was out there for him."
The fact the Phillies turned around and gave $120 million to Lee following his departure irked Werth, according to one team official who spoke to him afterwards - because Werth was led to believe the team simply couldn't spend that kind of money.
"Did we have $120 million to spend on Jayson Werth? Yeah, I guess we did - because we came up that much for Cliff Lee," the Phillies official said. "But the circumstances were completely different. They were completely separate equations."Into the spotlight
In Washington, Werth is now, by definition, a centerpiece of the franchise - both in terms of the lineup (where he will likely bat fourth) and in the overall marketing campaign (where he is expected to be featured prominently).
Those are roles that were largely foreign to him with the star-heavy Phillies - for example, even though Phillies cleanup hitter Ryan Howard missed 20 games in 2010, Manuel was more likely to use Ibanez or even spare-part veteran Mike Sweeney (six times each) than Werth (five) to fill in at cleanup - and some within the Phillies organization quietly question whether he'll be comfortable in them.
"Talent-wise, I think he can play any role you want him to play," Manuel said. "Talent-wise, this guy can hit wherever [in the order] you want him to hit."
But what about the part that doesn't have to do with talent? What about Werth's personal comfort in assuming that larger role?
"We'll see," Manuel said. "It comes back to how consistent he can be."
Similarly, when Amaro at one point said of Werth, "We never questioned his productivity or his ability with us" - it led to an obvious follow-up question: Well, what did you question?
Amaro paused at that query, then said, "I was a little uncomfortable going out there [seven years] with him. It wasn't so much his age, as the fact he just hadn't had the same type of track record of productivity that some other [free agents] had that had been on the market. It doesn't mean he won't be productive, because I think he will be. But at least from our standpoint he hadn't had that consistent productivity.
"Maybe he will in Washington," Amaro said. "I hope he does. I'm sure they're expecting a lot from him. He didn't have to be that front-and-center guy with us, but that doesn't mean he can't do it."