Can Jayson Werth bring swagger to the Washington Nationals?

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 11:28 PM


The Nationals had two offseason goals. One they trumpeted. The other they soft-pedaled because the subject was touchy. They wanted a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. That was a flop. But they also craved an everyday star who could provide more intense clubhouse leadership. That's why they focused so intently on Jayson Werth, with his hairy, hard-edged look and filthy Phillies reputation.

Last season, both GM Mike Rizzo and Manager Jim Riggleman considered shortstop Ian Desmond as close to a vocal in-your-face, let's-get-the-lead-out influence in the clubhouse as the team possessed. And Desmond was a rookie!

Jolly Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman, a Cal Ripken type, gave the Nats brains, star power production and a droll corner of the clubhouse. But when you have young talents such as Stephen Strasburg, rugged Bryce Harper and pepper-pot Danny Espinosa, you want them to enter a clubhouse where the richest player may also be one of the orneriest and where losing is seen as poison.

Now, the Nats will find out if the edgy Werth makes their team more fiery or if the franchise's losing tradition will douse some of his flame. This week, the first time Werth got to hit against live pitching, the Nats got their initial clue.

"He's probably going to hit me," Werth said to Rizzo as they watched Drew Storen warm up to throw batting practice. "If he does, I'll like him even more."

Storen's worst moment as a rookie was a blown lead in Philly when Werth's 460-foot walk-off homer sent the Nats on a long, bitter drive back to Washington.

In their first meeting since, would Storen really aim a 94 mph fastball close to a $126 million investment just to send a message that nothing was forgotten?

They don't come "nicer" than the Stanford-educated Storen, but his first pitch buzzed directly at the "W" on Werth's chest - the perfect brushback, but not a knockdown pitch. Werth's shaggy Wolfman hair bounced as he bailed.

"Told you," he muttered to Rizzo.

"Now we're even," Werth yelled to Storen, who doubled over, glove over face.

"Can't have you too comfortable," shot back Storen.

Once Werth got back behind the cage, Rizzo said, "I hate the [expletive] Phillies." The GM then ran off a list of borderline dirty plays and purpose pitches in recent years by the Nats' nemesis. "I hate the Phillies, too," said Werth. Unspoken, but hanging in the air was a new idea for the Nats: So, let's play more like the Phillies: mean, grimy and a little nasty.

Can Werth fill that bill? There's no guarantee. In Philly, he was just part of a whole team portrait with tobacco juice dribbling through chin stubble. His manager's nickname was "The Red Devil," some coaches had a hothead history and Chase Utley, whom Werth emulates, was Mr. Spit in Your Eye. The Phils staff didn't exactly consider Werth, who has his moods, a low-maintenance star.

But there's little doubt that Werth's hostile look is authentic. His uncle, Dick Schofield, played in the majors for 19 years. His great uncle Ducky played in the bigs, too. So, he's old-school, out of old-school by old-school - and proud of it.

Werth will blow up a catcher, take out an infielder or slide into a wall to make a catch. He and Utley were often the first Phils in the clubhouse, six hours before a game and three hours before some other prominent Phils. Should you pay perhaps $40 million over market price just to add some secret sauce to your team's bland taste? Probably not. But fans should know Werth was bought for his 'tude, not just his taters, batting eye and rocket throws. The Nats may still lose a while longer, but if they do it complacently, Werth is failing at part of his job.

"It's possible that, at some point this season, our closer [Storen] will be throwing 96 miles per hour and he'll come after three guys who threw 100 [Henry Rodriguez], 100 [Elvin Ramirez] and 98 [Cole Kimball]," said Rizzo. "By next year, if we have Stephen Strasburg [100] back and Jordan Zimmermann in our rotation, you should be able to . . ." Intimidate?

The Nats have no swagger yet, but if any wants to appear, it will be encouraged. For example, when rookie Kimball pitched live BP to Harper, he chose to remove the pitcher's screen (for protection) but also elected not to tell the hitter what pitch was coming. That's a pitcher's February choice: Get in your work safely behind the screen or do battle. "Get that screen out of there," yelled Rizzo.

Kimball, who may have the Nats' best three-pitch stuff so far this spring, made Harper swing and miss and almost got him to fan on a checked swing. (Yes, the players keep the count in their heads if the screen goes away.) Then, on a theoretical 2-2 pitch, Harper blasted a homer to center field. "Now that was a big-league duel," said Davey Johnson, chuckling and analyzing the pitch sequence.

"Two bombs. That's a good week [of hitting] in five minutes," Rizzo said to Harper, who had also smashed a ball off the fence against prospect Adam Carr.

Whether this more-athletic, harder-throwing version of The Plan works better than the previous ones is moot. Hot fastballs, if they are down the middle, just land farther behind the fence. A seven-year deal for a player who's past 30 and has never had 100 RBI could be a catastrophe.

Until there's an umpire, nothing matters at all. And until they play in a park with a second deck, nothing even matters much. But this camp feels a bit different.

When Werth arrived, he barely knew any current Nats except Matt Stairs, who was his de facto hitting coach in Philly. In clubhouse stature, Werth essentially replaces Dunn, even though Adam LaRoche is the new first baseman. Compared with the amiable Dunn, how well will the sometimes prickly Werth play with others? His locker is next to Zimmerman's here, and they seem to have hit it off.

When Zimmerman hit two towering bombs off a distant building, someone cracked, "If you break that shed, you have to pay for it."

"Let Werth pay for it," Zimmerman said. You only crack wise in public about players you respect.

Bonhomie before the first exhibition game pitch is mighty cheap currency. But at least the Nats are starting in the right frame of mind. "Werth is the kind of player we need. We're not going to beat people by playing nice," Storen said. "To turn this thing around, we need the intangibles and some guys who have that fire."

Werth brings such a spark. Will his new teammates extinguish it with a bucket of their wet mediocrity? Or will they fan his flame until their room starts to glow?

The Nationals, their owners and especially Rizzo, in a dangerous career-defining gamble, have bet $126 million that it will be the latter.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company