Regardless of right fielder Jayson Werth’s struggles this season, the bigger problem is that his disappointing performance could adversely affect the Washington Nationals’ future outlook on free agency.
After watching Werth repeatedly fail with runners in scoring position, questioning whether to ever again commit so much money to someone with such a relatively small body of successful work would seem prudent. If the Lerners passed on signing upcoming free agents, who could blame them?
At the very least, the Lerners are entitled to ask tough questions the next time they’re requested to bankroll another big signing. Werth’s lack of production before the all-star break, which wasn’t entirely surprising, probably would give any owner pause.
Factor in growing fan unrest about the situation, and it’s a worst-case scenario for the formerly thrifty Nationals owners.
It’s not just that Werth’s batting statistics were awful and he regressed defensively, which, obviously, was not what the Lerners expected of Werth in the first season of a seven-year, $126 million contract. The most troubling aspect of Werth’s long slide was his total collapse facing major expectations and responsibility for the first time in his career.
For ownership, free agency is all about expectations. When major commitments are made, players must deliver or risk being considered free agent flops. The $100 million type can set back a franchise immeasurably while scaring owners from possibly making more nine-figure mistakes.
And no matter how much clubs attempt to publicly accentuate the positive about underperforming free agents, pressure mounts internally with every poor at-bat. Wasted opportunities often stir front-office frustration.
It’s true there’s no proven formula for success in free agency. Without the ability to see the future, it’s impossible to determine, with certainty, which free agents will succeed or fail. But if teams choose to notice them, signs of what to expect do exist.
This winter, the Nationals could be in the market for a leadoff-hitting center fielder and a starting pitcher. If the Lerners are willing to pursue free agents for those jobs, or others, the baseball staff should consider only players who have thrived under the pressure of leadership and have had many impressive seasons.
No more character actors — it’s time for the Nationals to focus on leading men.
In Philadelphia, Werth benefited immensely from being in an everyday lineup that included shortstop Jimmy Rollins and first baseman Ryan Howard, former NL most valuable players, and all-star second baseman Chase Utley. Those three set the tone.
Whatever fans and the media expected of the Phillies, they looked primarily to Rollins, Howard and Utley to provide. Philadelphia also had other great players such as starting pitchers Cole Hamels and, the past two seasons, Roy Halladay.
Werth wasn’t out front. Sure, he also faced pressure to contribute and would have been replaced if he failed to produce, but that’s not the same thing as being “The Guy,” which Werth has learned during the painful start to his Nationals career.
Free agents are also supposed to deliver in the clubhouse, and Werth, by all accounts, has helped inexperienced players such as second baseman Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos, who could be very good for a very long time. The Lerners, though, employ the manager and the coaching staff to provide guidance. Let’s be clear about this: Only future Hall of Famers such as Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols are paid, in part, for their iconic presence.
Also, the argument that the Nationals needed to overpay for Werth in order to potentially attract premier free agents is nonsensical. Most free agents sign with the clubs willing to pay them the most. Overpaying for Werth would give the Nationals an edge only if his contract set the standard for their strategy with all free agents.
My friend and colleague, Thomas Boswell, last week correctly identified similarities in the Nationals’ pursuit of Werth last winter and the Chicago Cubs’ signing of Alfonso Soriano after Soriano had 46 home runs and 41 stolen bases with the Nationals in 2006. Both players faced intense scrutiny because of huge contracts.
Difference is, Soriano had been an elite player for years before signing with the Cubs. Werth has never driven in 100 runs. He hit as many as 30 homers only once. In fact, with Philadelphia, Werth was an everyday player for less than three full seasons.
Werth’s career numbers shouldn’t have inspired confidence among Nationals executives or the club’s fan base. The history simply wasn’t there.
More productive after the all-star break throughout his career, Werth probably will improve when the schedule resumes Friday. He should benefit physically and mentally from the break. It’s difficult to fathom Werth playing worse.
The Lerners finally did what fans wanted, making a big splash in free agency with Werth. But after watching Werth work so far, it’s not clear if there will be more any time soon.