- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 10, 2011

Jayson Werth is in a lonely place right now — and I’m not talking about all those empty seats in the right-field stands. The way he’s swinging the bat, every pitcher looks like Roy Halladay (if not Christy Mathewson). Worse, he’s new in Washington, so it’s not like he’s built up a lot of capital with Nationals Nation.

Then there’s his contract, which is looking more and more like a cement overcoat: seven years (only 6½ to go), $126 million. Let’s face it, Werth isn’t that kind of player. Never has been, never will be. The moment he scribbled his name on the dotted line, it virtually was assured he’d be a disappointment here. I mean, how many guys are really worth that much money — or anything close?

Still, no one expected this. No one expected his slow start to turn into a lengthy, soul-crushing slump that, clearly, has begun to chip away at his confidence. Sunday, in an otherwise pleasing 2-0 win over the Colorado Rockies, Werth was hitless in three trips and saw his batting average drop to .215 — the infamous Mendoza Line. It wasn’t a very encouraging 0-for-3, either. He swung at the first pitch his first two times up and didn’t hit either ball particularly hard.

“Just trying to be a little more aggressive and trying to get something going,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “The first at-bat, it was fastball that was a little up out of the zone, and he just got underneath it. The second time, it was a slider. Just caught it a little out front.”

We have to seek out coaches and managers for this information because Werth, it seems, has been rendered utterly speechless by his struggles. Once again Sunday he refused comment afterward, slipping out of the clubhouse with a suitcase trailing him. This, of course, only adds to his isolation — and makes him come across as a Player Apart. That’s the last thing the Nats (who still have tons of tickets to sell) should want from one of their marquee names.

When asked about his Incredible Shrinking Right Fielder, Davey Johnson repeated what basically has become the team’s mantra in this situation: “He’s been lookin’ good to me lately. I think he’s right on the verge of bustin’ out. He’s had some history of great second halves. I don’t worry about a guy like Jayson Werth. I worry more about the younger guys establishing themselves for the future.”

Johnson’s right about one thing: Werth has been more of a second-half hitter in recent years. So there’s a glimmer of hope there. As the Nationals head into the All-Star break with a better-than-expected 46-46 record, the No. 1 thought on their minds should be: How can we get Werth to have another of those “great second halves”? How can we help him salvage something from what, so far, has been a lost season?

After all, nobody wants to consider the alternative: that this might be the New Normal for Werth, that he might never again be as productive as he was with in Philadelphia. The game certainly can turn on you like that, especially as you get deeper into your 30s.

The Nats, trying to shake him loose, have batted him all over the lineup — third, second, first, fifth, fourth. Lately, he’s been hitting in the sixth spot, but that hasn’t jump-started him, either. Indeed, in his past 34 games, bad has turned to worse. He’s batting .148 over that stretch with two homers and an OPS (.681) that looks more like a slugging percentage from the Steroid Era.

Will teams never learn? The Nationals, you may recall, thought they needed to sign Werth for the sake of their credibility, but how is their credibility looking now? They’re getting virtually nothing out of their highest-paid player, and his salary is only going to increase in the years ahead. When he’s 38, they’ll still be shelling out $21 million for him. (Ask yourself: Will he still be in the majors then, or will the Nats just be eating the remainder of his contract?)

Not that Werth is alone in this regard. If you look around, you’ll see that a number of well-compensated players are struggling mightily in their first season with a new club. For instance:

• Vernon Wells, Los Angeles Angels: Batting .225 (going into Sunday’s game), 48 points below last year’s average with Toronto.

• Dan Uggla, Atlanta Braves: Batting .185, 102 points below last year’s average with Florida.

• Adam Dunn, Chicago White Sox: Batting .162, 98 points below last year’s average with Washington.

• David DeJesus, Oakland A’s: Batting .219, 99 points below last year’s average with Kansas City.

• John Buck, Florida Marlins: Batting .219, 62 points below last year’s average with Toronto.

• Hideki Matsui, A’s: Batting .210, 64 points below last year’s average with the Angels.

And notice I haven’t even mentioned the Boston Red Sox’s Carl Crawford, who at .243 is batting 64 points below last year’s average with Tampa Bay. (Why haven’t I mentioned Crawford, you ask? Answer: Because compared to Werth’s .215 mark, .243 seems almost respectable.)

The Nationals have lost 18 one-run games. How many of those — and how many others — might they have won if Werth had had even an average first half? (If he were hitting as well as he did for the Phillies, he’d have seven more homers and 23 more RBI by now, according to my calculator.)

Nobody on the Nats needs this All-Star break more than No. 28. But when it’s over, will we begin to see the real Jayson Werth or will we continue to see this other fellow, the one who’s hitting one point below Jason Marquis (.216) — and appears to have lost his voice as well as his swing?

• Dan Daly can be reached at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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