Nationals' free agent signing of Jayson Werth makes many take notice of team

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 11:57 PM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA . - On Monday, the day after the Washington Nationals announced their presence at baseball's winter meetings with a $126 million contract to right fielder Jayson Werth, the aftereffects were still rippling through the lobby and suites at the Dolphin hotel. Twenty-nine teams were seething, the Nationals were defiantly satisfied and everyone took notice, up to and including the best postseason pitcher alive.

The Nationals' seven-year deal with Werth changed so much about this baseball offseason. It drastically shook the market for free agent contracts and altered Washington's perception in two ways. For some, it sent a signal that the Nationals are poised to add enough pieces to compete. For others, it served as a referendum on their business savvy. One agent, echoing the rough sentiment of most baseball executives, called Werth's contract "the stupidest thing I've ever seen."

General Manager Mike Rizzo heard the criticism and responded with a shrug. Let everyone else complain. To the Nationals, only one thing mattered: They got the player they wanted.

"I don't apologize for signing Jayson Werth," Rizzo said. "I'm glad we have him in the fold. We're a better ballclub today than we were yesterday. I can understand some of the comments. We're taking care of ourselves. We're trying to build something special here."

And Werth could help beyond his contributions in right field and in the middle of the Nationals' lineup. "It lets everyone know the Nationals are serious about winning," said one agent, who predicted the signing would help Washington attract future free agents. "It got everybody's attention."

The Nationals believe signing an elite free agent such as Werth will help lure more free agents, either this year or next. Said Rizzo: "Instead of having to recruit players and overpay players at times to come to Washington, I think we're trying to get this place to be a destination."

The addition of Werth already made an impact in the eyes of the premier pitching free agent available. Rizzo has frequently called acquiring Cliff Lee "a long shot," and surely, with the New York Yankees closing in, he's right. But the Nationals, Lee's agent said, aren't out of the Lee sweepstakes yet, and Werth may help their position.

"They're not eliminated by any means," Darek Braunecker said. "Not on our part, anyway."

Let's not be naive: Braunecker's best interest is to give the impression as many teams as possible would like to sign Lee in order to drive up demand for his client. Still, Lee hasn't completely ruled out Washington, especially after the Nationals signed Werth to the stunning contract. Lee played with and became close friends with Werth on the National League champion Phillies in 2009.

For now, Werth's contract has benefited every free agent.

"It made everyone money," one agent said. "What in the hell is a guy like Carl Crawford going to ask for? Jayson Werth is a good player. He's not a great player."

While views about Werth's contract were resoundingly harsh, they weren't uniform. Many understood the Nationals' predicament: They would have to produce an eye-popping contract to add a front-line player to a team that lost 298 games in the past three seasons. And some - not many, but some - thought Werth deserved it.

"To me, I think Jayson Werth is a great player," Braunecker said. "I don't view the contract as being exorbitant. Obviously, they pinned it on [Matt] Holliday, and just in my personal opinion, he's a better player than Matt Holliday. But obviously the market is starting to define itself a little bit for the elite guys."

The debate and the criticism will likely continue until opening day, at which point the baseball, for at least a little while, will obscure the business.

"The money doesn't play," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "You put a ballplayer out there. You don't put the money out there."

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