WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — One of the perceived strengths the Washington Nationals have stressed since reporting to spring training last week has been their roster continuity. Most faces in the clubhouse are familiar. It’s like the Nationals are running it back with their 97-win team from last season with a new coaching staff. The entire projected Opening Day starting lineup was on the club in 2017. The team’s core has won hundreds of games and suffered at least two early October exits together. The cohesion is valued.
But there’s a void. A shaggy, bearded 6-foot-5 presence is missing. The Nationals will begin their Grapefruit League schedule on Friday and Jayson Werth hasn’t appeared at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. The clubhouse is without its organic farmer, gluten-free beer drinker and gourmet jerky connoisseur. And it just doesn’t seem right. It’s … weird.
“Just looking around,” reliever Shawn Kelley said, “and knowing the big hairy gorilla is not sitting around here is weird.”
“It’s weird that I haven’t seen him yet,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I’ve been expecting him to show up one of these days.”
“It’s weird not having him around,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured player in Nationals history. “It’s crazy. It’s also crazy that seven years went by that fast.”
Seven years was the length of the contract worth $126 million a clean-shaven Werth signed in December 2010, a pact that drew wrath from all corners of the baseball world. Most naysayers wondered why the Nationals would give a soon-to-be 32-year-old one-time all-star that much money over that many years. Another segment wondered why Werth would defect from the Philadelphia Phillies coming off a 97-win season for the last-place Nationals.
Seven years, four playoff appearances, a few unforgettable moments and a lot more hair later, the move is considered franchise-altering, a necessary step in the organization’s quest for legitimacy.
“I think it was worth every penny,” Zimmerman said. “Looking back at it, some people might disagree. You look at his performance or injuries or things like that, but for all the other just things fans can’t see or didn’t see what happened in here. I hope people kind of realize what he meant to the organization.”
Zimmerman, the only Nationals player around before and after Werth’s tenure, was given Werth’s corner locker for the spring. Adam Eaton will take Werth’s place in left field. Turner is expected to slide into Werth’s spot in two-hole in the batting order.
But Werth’s role off the field as the preeminent clubhouse leader will not shift to just one person. Players have said it will be a group effort. Veterans including Max Scherzer, Daniel Murphy, Kelley and Zimmerman are among those expected to assume leadership duties as rookie Manager Dave Martinez and his coaching staff ease into their jobs.
“It matters. Anytime you lose somebody of his stature and experience, that’s obviously a loss,” Scherzer said. “The thing is that we’re bringing the whole team back. No one guy has to step up and be somebody that they’re not.”
The Nationals moved on from Werth because, after a disappointing, injury-plagued 2017 season, he’ll turn 39 in May and they boast an outfielder surplus for the future. In addition to Eaton returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Michael A. Taylor enjoyed a breakout 2017, Brian Goodwin convinced club executives he’s qualified to serve as the fourth outfielder, and Victor Robles, Washington’s top prospect, is on the majors’ doorstep.
Yet Werth still maintains a presence on the franchise he helped morph into a perennial contender. The team owes him $10 million plus interest, an amount deferred to this season a couple years ago, and he stays in contact with teammates. Kelley and Ryan Madson, who won a World Series with Werth in Philadelphia, are among the former teammates who regularly text Werth. The messages aren’t baseball-related. One of the subjects broached is Kelley’s attempt to replace Werth as the team’s hair and beard titleholder.
“He’s like: ‘Good try. It won’t be on my level,’ ” said Kelley, who arrived at camp basically ready to be cast for the final season of “Game of Thrones.” “We mess with each other.”
Werth wants to continue his career but remains a free agent in a market that would’ve been unkind to him when he was a free agent seven years ago. On Monday, Bryce Harper vouched for his mentor and groomsman. He wondered why teams would want to tank for a higher draft pick instead of adding a leader who he believes still has some left in the tank like Werth.
“He’s somebody I looked up to,” Harper said. “Every single day I came into this clubhouse I wanted to talk to him and see what he had for me … One of the best teammates I’ve ever had throughout my whole life, so I’m going to miss him.”
This will be the first season of Harper’s career without Werth around. The team is confident his contributions on and off the field will be replaced, but it’ll be an adjustment. His absence is noticeable. It’s already weird.