Five years ago, Jayson Werth arrived at spring training with the Phillies knowing he would be a prized free agent at the end of that season with a huge contract in the balance.
“How do you feel?” Manager Charlie Manuel asked.
“I feel good,” Werth said.
“No, how do you feel?” Manuel said. Werth understood. Was he mentally and psychologically ready for The Big Payday season?
“Feel good,” Werth said.
“Yeah, you should. You got the hammer,” said Manuel, who grew up in baseball’s pay-’em-peanuts era that lasted for almost a century. “Just make sure you use it. If you take some horsebleep deal and stay here, I’ll never talk to you.”
Manuel was dead serious, Werth remembers.
It’s a sport; it’s a business. Both are true. But in your walk year: Son, get paid.
Sometimes your “walk year” feels like you’re walking the plank. Or sometimes you can waltz right into a $215 million penthouse. But during that final season, as the days until free agency count down and the statistics that will impact your next deal mount up, everybody walks a tightrope.
Right now, the Nationals look like they are teetering on that slender foothold. Their clubhouse is filled with players who already have or soon will carry all the astronomical hopes and vague burdens of something most people can’t imagine — getting a guaranteed contract for somewhere between $50 million and infinity. Next winter, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Denard Span and Doug Fister probably will sign deals for a combined $400 million.
How will it impact them? As Manuel said: “No, how do you feel?”
On Saturday, Desmond, who has declined a nine-digit contract, made two more botched plays that a good high schooler might consider routine. Those misplays — one scored as his eighth error in 12 games — led directly to two Phillies runs in a 5-3 Nats defeat.
The losing pitcher, Zimmermann, who has declined a comparable contract extension, normally has such superb control that he has not walked back-to-back hitters in 92 starts. But he walked three Phils leadoff men as well as a weak hitter with two outs and nobody on base. Two of those walks scored.
Two “walk year” stars, two botched plays, four uncharacteristic walks, four runs gifted to the Phillies. Connected? That’s perhaps the most devilish aspect of all. Nobody can prove — and even players themselves sometimes don’t know — how much impact a looming deal has on performance.
On Sunday, Span, who led the NL in hits last season, may return to the lineup after a pair of “core muscle” surgeries. Is he rushing back to help his team? Or to have a better season? Whatever Span’s motives, even if they are perfect, he will, like other Nats, be scrutinized.
For example, if Desmond’s future deal is bothering him in the field, then why is he 11 for 21 over his last five games, including three hits Saturday? “Brutal,” the conscientious Desmond said. “But end of year, it’ll be good looking back on how I overcame this with the support of my teammates. When I came to bat [after the two botches], that was one of the loudest cheers I’ve ever had. That was cool.”
Werth and Max Scherzer have been there and have advice. First, accept that pressure exists. People will look at every mistake and wonder, fair or not. “It’s real. There’s family pressure, pressure you put on yourself. You have one season when you can affect a lot of lives,” Werth said. “That doesn’t help when you go 0 for 12 and your team gets swept.
“This is the year that you have played your whole life for, the tripleheaders in Legion ball, the years in the minors and the bad injuries. People say, ‘He’s worried about his contract.’ Whether you’re dealing with it or not, you’re dealing with it.
“It’s a lot, man.”
In 2010, Werth rode the roller coaster. He went into a deep slump, watched his team’s play deteriorate, fired his agent and hired Scott Boras.
“Life was speeding up on me. I needed somebody to lay the whole thing out — how the market works, how they use ‘comparable players.’ He talked me off the ledge,” Werth said. “Then he said, ‘I just need you to put your cape on.’
“My wife was there. When I’m going bad, she’ll say, ‘Put your cape on.’ ”
Simple, right? That’s all we ask, just be a superhero 162 times a year.
Werth got red hot the last 10 weeks and signed with the Nats for $126 million. Some seem hardly bothered, such as Scherzer, who went 18-5 and struck out 252 hitters last year.
“We all respect the business side. We get it. But it’s the ugly side of the game,” Scherzer said Saturday. “I had one single motivation — play this game. You can’t be motivated by the contract. Every day it’s ‘win with the guys in this room. Let’s win this thing.’ ”
Still, Scherzer knows it’s not a fan’s job to see the simplicity of his motives. “Fans aren’t here at 2 p.m., seeing who’s doing the extra work,” he said. “And they don’t know that, most of the time, a bad year and a contract year aren’t connected.”
If the four most prominent Nats free agents have one factor in their favor, it’s that they are all among the game’s harder workers. Some may even work too hard. But it’s the thinking, too much darn thinking that gets you. After his four walks, Zimmermann said, “Inexcusable. . . . I need to not think so much out there. Just know my stuff is better than these guys. Not be so fine. Go after ’em.”
All four of the walk-year Nats have one common thread: The game has been extremely hard for them. Zimmermann went to a cold-weather college, far off the baseball grid, then he had to come back from Tommy John surgery. Fister didn’t throw hard, got traded. Span overcame concussions. At every stage, Desmond was swamped with issues, tons of errors or strikeouts, and encircled by doubters. General Manager Mike Rizzo stuck by him, but few others did. Desmond keeps getting the last word.
“You can’t let that contract stuff rent space in your brain,” Manager Matt Williams said.
But what if it does? It’s a mean, lonely, beautiful game. Sometimes you just have to go to your secret lair in the unknown mountain castle — the place where your athletic arrogance resides — and put your cape on.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.