VIERA, Fla. — Jayson Werth arrived in Viera, Fla., on Friday night and by early Saturday afternoon he was inside the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, getting himself together to go take batting practice with second baseman Danny Espinosa.
But before he took his first in-town hacks of the spring, Werth acknowledged that this year, things are different. He had plenty of time to mull over 2011 in what he emphasized was a long offseason (without playing in the postseason) and he’s well aware that the offensive numbers he put up in 2011 weren’t what anyone was expecting, least of all him. Instead of trying to delve into the ‘why’ behind the .232 average, .389 slugging percentage, .718 on-base plus slugging percentage and career-high 160 strikeouts, Werth’s focusing more on the simple issues: his swing wasn’t right from the start and ‘right’ ultimately never came. Whether it was pressure or not, he doesn’t care to ponder it. Asked directly about contract pressure, Werth said “I don’t even know how to answer that question.”
“Me personally, as far as that goes, I don’t have any interest in talking about it, really,” Werth said. “I can’t do anything about it. I can’t change it. People can say what they want. Whatever.
“It’s over. Water under the bridge now. I don’t think it’s a fair assessment to judge my career or my time in Washington on last year. We’ve got lots of time to make good. We’re going in the right direction. Washington has never had a winning ball club, at least not in recent history. We were one game away, that we didn’t get to play, from being .500. Last year was a semi-success in my eyes, just because the direction has changed. We’ve done a full 180. We’ll have (manager Davey Johnson) for a full year. Last year was crazy for a number of different reasons. I’m over it. I’m not going to sit here and talk about it much more than today.”
One theory that Werth did allow, though, was comfort. Now a full-time district-area resident, Werth’s comfort level with his surroundings, his teammates — perhaps even his contract — is much more prevalent than it was this time last year.
“I’m home now,” Werth said, looking around at the clubhouse. “I know everybody in here. I’m comfortable. I think that can definitely play a role. Last year, I got started off on the wrong foot early a little bit and I was never able to fundamentally get back to what’s made me successful.”
Werth talked about an exchange he once had with former Phillies teammate Eric Bruntlett who told him about hitting with Lance Berkman in spring training. Bruntlett asked Berkman “What are you trying to do?” and Berkman replied “You just try to get a good path in spring training and keep it all year. If I don’t get that good path in spring, I might not get it.”
“At the time (Bruntlett) told me that, I kind of put it in the memory banks and thought about it,” Werth said.
“As the winter went on, I pulled that back up. It’s pretty insightful. If you don’t get it at the start, it’s tough to get. I think that was just kind of the case last year. It doesn’t define me as an individual. It doesn’t define me as a baseball player. It doesn’t define my career. It was one year and 600 at-bats. I’m over it and looking forward to this year. I worked hard all winter. I’m healthy.”
Werth didn’t alter his offseason routine much, he said, and brought up several times that one of the biggest victories for him in 2011 was that he made it through the season healthy — allowing him to have a normal offseason to prepare for 2012. That health may help him as the season goes on, too, if his teammates report in similar shape. Instead of hitting in the No. 2 spot, or at leadoff, or in the bottom half of the lineup, if the Nationals lineup is written the way it’s projected, with Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman both fully healthy, Werth will likely find himself more comfortably in the fifth or sixth spot in the lineup. His swing, he said, feels fundamentally solid as spring training prepares to open up.
“There was times where I was doing whatever the team needed,” Werth said. “It wasn’t necessarily the best thing for me, but it was probably the best thing for the club at the time. Whatever, I don’t really feel that had anything to do with the numbers. My swing started bad and stayed bad.
“(Either way), health is the biggest thing. People can talk and say whatever they want about last year. Until you go through it, until you walk in those shoes, I don’t know how really you can comment. I’m over it. I’m past it… In (2005), I played hurt all year, and then I had surgery at the end of ‘05, and then I didn’t play in ‘06. I was a bench player in ‘07, I was a platoon halfway in ‘08. That hurt. That was tough. Last year was no big deal. Would I have liked to have better numbers? Of course. You do what you got to do.”
Part of putting last year behind him, though, will come from beginning this season — a season with significant expectations placed on the Nationals — anew. The goal he reiterated, as he did countless times in 2011 regardless of where the Nationals were in the standings, is “to win a World Series.”
Being a playoff spectator this offseason wasn’t something Werth, who’d played in the playoffs the previous four years with Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Dodgers, particularly enjoyed. He called it an “enlightening” experience and realized how badly he missed playing on that stage.
“It was like ‘Man, I really want to be there,’” Werth said. “That’s what you play for. That’s why you train all winter… I missed it. That’s a really fun experience. It’s why you play the game from Little League all the way up… Hopefully we can get there sooner than later, that’s for sure. I think these guys in here are talented enough and hungry enough. We’ve got the right mix of coaches and the manager and the attitude. I think a little bit from a fan base, they could get behind a team, fill the stadium every night and make it tough on the (visiting) team, it could go a long way. That’s something that, if we can get that aspect, it could catapult us ahead a little bit.”
Werth watched every minute of the playoffs, he said, but wasn’t entirely surprised to see what happened to his former team, the Phillies, who were knocked out of the Division Series by the eventual champion St. Louis Cardinals.
“You know what, no, (I wasn’t surprised),” Werth said. “Just because anything can happen at that point. It is so hard to win. It is so hard to win. I think it’s almost easier getting in than it is winning.
“The best team doesn’t always win. You’ve got a five-game series to start. You could get knocked out just as easily as you can win. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when we get there, but a lot of times when a team gets in that’s just hot, like we saw last year, that turns into the favorite team — which isn’t necessarily the best team over the course of the season. That’s what makes it crazy. That’s what makes it fun.”
As for whether or not some of the same aspects that made his former playoff teams successful are present in the Nationals of today, Werth took a minute to consider the question before concluding that even with all the successful teams he’d been on in the past, “We’ve got more pitching.”
“Before, I think the teams I was on that made it just got hot at the end and had a good lineup, but the pitching over there came later,” Werth said, referring to the Phillies’ top of the rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. “This team, our pitching’s good now. It’s young, it’s going to continue to get better.”