Late Tuesday morning, as the Washington Nationals gathered in their home stadium for the first time this year, Jayson Werth remained an unemployed baseball player. Ryan Zimmerman sat next to the locker Werth used to occupy, a stall now belonging to Miguel Montero. He considered what Werth and an entire fleet of veteran players like him had experienced this offseason.
“I can imagine it would be tough,” Zimmerman said. “It ends for everyone at some point. If you play the game, you understand that. Unfortunately for some of these guys, they still have a bunch of production left, so they shouldn’t have to end.”
For Werth, the end is not here yet. Werth, part of the Nationals’ core the past seven seasons, joined the Seattle Mariners on a minor league contract Tuesday afternoon, a deal likely to lead to a big league roster spot. Until he signed, Werth could have served as a representation for an entire class of players who became victims of a combination of economic and competitive forces within the game. As baseball’s offseason took unprecedented turns, those players had the rug pulled out from underneath them.
With Opening Day looming Thursday, an incomplete list of still-jobless veterans includes Jose Bautista, Matt Holliday, Greg Holland, Andre Ethier, Aaron Hill, J.J. Hardy, John Lackey, Brandon Moss, Brandon Phillips, Mark Reynolds and Carlos Ruiz. All of them had their best seasons years ago, and none would be considered splashy, league-shifting additions. But they are the kind of players teams once sought for reliability, experience and leadership, players given a few million bucks for one season or, at worst, a late-January minor league deal. Now, they cannot find work.
“This offseason,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said, “was very interesting.”
Scherzer was careful not to say much more, not wanting to spark any controversy or retrace ground already covered in the winter and spring. But what he hinted at was the disillusionment among players after a winter unlike any other.
“Nothing has ever happened like what happened this offseason,” Zimmerman said.
And what happened was this: an utter freeze of the free agent market, for multilayered reasons. The rise of superteams convinced many franchises to rebuild or even to construct losing teams in hopes of acquiring more draft capital. The Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees largely sat out free agency. Wanting to avoid the prohibitive penalty for violating the luxury tax in consecutive seasons, many teams chose to keep their powder dry for next winter, when a starry class will be headlined by Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and, should he exercise an opt-out clause, Clayton Kershaw. A slew of front offices, particularly those in competitive holding patterns, decided it would be more cost-effective to fill rosters with young players than an aging free agent.
For whatever prevailing factor, the class of player hit hardest was those like Werth: a one-time star or solid everyday player expecting a job as a role player and finding little-to-no interest. Werth, 38, finally decided to settle on a minor league deal with a good shot at landing on the big league club. A bevy of players like him remain sidelined.
“You want the 750 best baseball players in the game,” Scherzer said. “That’s up for the front offices to identify and evaluate that. That’s the job, to make sure that this has the best 25-man rosters that we could possibly have. When they make a move, you go on the pretense that, hey, these are the best guys that are here for the job. Let’s go.”
Scherzer, tellingly, left out his opinion of whether the best 750 baseball players in the world will be filling rosters Thursday. In many instances, the back-end of rosters will be filled with younger players, in some cases players shuttling back and forth between the minors and majors. From the perspective of data-driven front offices, players making the league minimum — and who can be sent back and forth between the majors and minors — can provide the same production as a veteran with more roster flexibility. But something is lost.
“Having guys shuttle in and out of your locker room doesn’t make it any easier,” Zimmerman said. “At the end of the day, it’s about production, and I get that. If you can piece together a team that puts up the numbers one person does, I guess that’s in their minds equal. But this game involves a lot of chemistry.
“There’s a lot of failure in this game. Having people around consistently, and veteran guys who have been through it, helps. To continually shuttle in two or three different young guys that just sit in their locker and look at their phone the whole day, it’s different. I’m not going to say you can’t be successful that way. It’s just a different feel.”
The Minnesota Twins can attest. Last season, the Twins orchestrated one of the greatest turnarounds in baseball history, leaping from 59 wins to 85 and an appearance in the American League wild card game. The most significant reasons owed to big-picture improvement in the rotation and among younger players. But the front office, in its internal evaluation, also credited the presence of veterans such as reliever Matt Belisle and catcher Chris Gimenez. This offseason, the Twins added veteran relievers Fernando Rodney, Addison Reed and Zach Duke to provide a calming effect.
“I wouldn’t speak for other teams, but for us, we’ll continue to target that every year,” Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said. “I think that any time you’re trying to build a team that can compete and contend, you have to have guys that have been here before and had that experience. What teams are missing, if anything, when you go through the rough stretches, guys that have been there before and come out the other end, that’s the benefit of having that guy in your clubhouse.”
As clubhouses reckon with little-known teammates, fans will have to reckon with little-known attractions. People may not buy a ticket or tune in to see aging players whose best performance is behind them. But there is a difference between watching a game and thinking, “Hey, that guy!” and “Who the heck is that?” The players taking at-bats from the likes of Werth, Holliday and Bautista are not up-and-coming stars, but rather fringe roster filler. From a consumer perspective, familiarity matters, and there will be less familiarity with Opening Day rosters than many believe there ought to be.
For the players themselves, they will sit home and wonder whether the end has come for them. The players actually filling clubhouses will continue to be miffed at the reasons.
“They don’t want those guys to have jobs, I guess,” Zimmerman said. “I’m not trying to sit here and say he’s an all-star, or a perennial. [Werth] and other guys that are big league players should be on big league teams.”