The Nationals Land Their Whale

In recent winters, the Washington Nationals have thrown their hat into the ring for several big name free agents, most notably Mark Teixeira during the 2008-2009 winter, but in the end, they were left telling their fans, “Hey, at least we tried and that shows our commitment to winning, right? … RIGHT???”  A Nats fan honest with himself probably realized that while the effort was nice, it was probably for the better that they didn’t come away victorious.  After all, how much positive impact would big a signing like Teixeira really have on a team like the Nationals?

If anything, it may have been detrimental to the team as a whole as a few more wins could have cost them the chance to draft then sign two of the most highly touted prospects ever in the past two drafts, first Stephen Strasburg and then Bryce Harper; both #1 overall picks.  The world got a taste of what Strasburg could be this year before he was cut down with an injury that has led to Tommy John Surgery while Harper made the most of his limited time in the Arizona Fall League and continued to draw rave reviews about his potential.

Both of their franchise players are at least a year away (and Harper is probably two or more) so would it behoove the Nationals front office to again put their best forward with some of the winter’s premier free agents?  The answer for them was a resounding yes with the surprise signing of outfielder Jayson Werth to a 7-year, $126 million dollar mega-contract.  A jaw dropper to be sure.  I’ll say out front that I don’t much care for the deal and it is less about the money than the length and player.

As a Detroit Tigers fan, I’m well aware that sometimes teams have to pay a little more because of their situation and/or city (definitely both for the Tigers pre-2006, now just the latter), but I would have liked to see the Nats go for a more calculated risk.  In the winter of 2004, the Tigers signed Ivan Rodriguez to a 4-year, $40 million dollar deal on the heels of a disgustingly bad season during which they nearly set the MLB record for losses (43-119).  Though Rodriguez was 32 years old, he was coming off of a great year for the World Series champion Florida Marlins and had a lengthy track record of excellence behind him.

A year later they took a much bigger chance and signed Magglio Ordonez to a massive 5-year, $75 million dollar deal after a season during which he played just 52 games thanks a severe left knee injury.  They had protection built in just in case Ordonez didn’t heal properly, but it was still a big risk and they were betting that he would return to something close to the .300-30-100 level he’d established from 1999-2003.  I don’t think anyone expected Ordonez to earn 100% of the contract (and he didn’t, even with the MVP-worthy 2007 season), but the Tigers really just needed him to not suck and along with Rodriguez, create a culture that was conducive to acquiring even more of the many missing pieces.  He didn’t suck, hitting .320/.382/.495 with 90 HR and 422 RBI over the life of the 5-year deal.

The Nats need Werth not to suck more than they need to him to earn him 100% of his huge deal, but they made it that much harder by going seven years for a guy whose track record is just two *full* seasons deep (as well as an excellent 134-game campaign on his ledger).  He was riddled by injuries from 2003-2007 (and missed the 2006 season entirely) and though he has shown the talent in the last three seasons that led to four top 100 rankings by Baseball America (’99, ’00, ’02, ’03), he’s far from a sure thing going forward.

He can be a 2.5-3.0 WAR player (think Hunter Pence, Alfonso Soriano, Nick Markakis level from 2010) after the first year or two of the deal as long as he is playing 140+ games a season because at least then he is not dead money on the disabled list.  Sure, the Nats are hoping he can continue to pump out 5.0 WAR seasons as he has over the last three, but you have to be realistic about a 32-year old late bloomer.  The last thing the Nats want to see is Werth out of the lineup with injuries just as their core is coming together.  Given that there is a pretty decent chance that that could happen, I think the deal was altogether ill-advised.

I’d have rather seen the Nationals blow Carl Crawford out of the water with a 7-year deal than take the consolation prize before the grand prize has even been given out.  But if Werth had to be the guy, I’d have much rather seen 5-years, $95 million taking it from $18mil to $19mil per but slicing off two years.  I genuinely hope it works out for the Nationals, but the odds are stacked rather heavily against it.

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