- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

VIERA, Fla. | The man who changes everything wears his hair long and unkempt. He brings with him a ring, from the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies - teammates turned rivals - along with a swagger, a presence, lofty expectations and a $126 million price tag.

When the Jayson Werth era in Washington officially begins Thursday at Nationals Park, he will usher it in with the hopes of a franchise on his shoulders. For as much as Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and the unknown potential of youth represent optimism for the Nationals‘ future, Werth is the bridge to get them there.

Werth, the Nationals hope, is the player who legitimizes the operation, who shows the baseball world that the Nationals are serious about competing in Major League Baseball.

In their own clubhouse, it’s already working.

“The best way for me to say it,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, one of three homegrown talents who’ll reside in the Nationals‘ infield this season, “is that coming up in this organization, as a younger guy, you went home at the end of the season and you weren’t really excited. You didn’t take pride in being a Washington National.”

That all changed this offseason when Werth signed the largest contract in franchise history on Day One of baseball’s winter meetings. The Nationals then continued to show they were serious by getting involved in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes and the Zack Greinke trade talks, though neither potential move panned out.

“Now you’ve got guys pushing for spots down in the minor leagues who want to be up here,” Desmond said. “There’s veteran guys from other organizations, free agents that want to come over here. Five years ago, Cliff Lee wouldn’t even have been in any conversation to come here. There’s no chance. Not even a maybe.

“Now people are starting to gravitate toward the Washington Nationals.”

Signing Werth, the type of big-name free agent the Nationals had previously been unable to lure to Washington, is the next step in general manager Mike Rizzo’s plan for the organization. It is the next step toward becoming a competitive team in the major leagues and bringing in the free agents who, like Werth, fit the profile of accomplished, athletic two-way players to complement Washington’s growing stable of youthful talent.

But in achieving that, Rizzo and the Lerner family also handed out a seven-year contract to a soon-to-be 32-year-old, backloaded with a $21 million annual salary when he’s 36, 37 and 38 that also includes a full no-trade clause.

The deal was so large it compelled Mets general manager Sandy Alderson to quip at the time, “I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington.” It’s a contract on par with those of players such as Alfonso Soriano (eight years, $136 million) and Barry Zito (seven years, $126 million) - two of what are widely considered the most untradeable deals in baseball.

It’s the 14th most lucrative contract ever handed out in the game and, quite simply, if it doesn’t work, it could haunt the Nationals for years to come.

One year after signing with the Cubs, Soriano played in just 109 games, and only 117 the following year - when his .241 batting average was a far cry from the .300, .290 and .280 marks he’d posted from 2002 through 2004. Zito, despite being the highest paid player on the team, wasn’t on the Giants’ World Series roster when they won the crown last fall. After six straight double-digit win seasons in Oakland, Zito has lost 57 games the past four years with a 4.45 ERA.

The Blue Jays sent shock waves through the baseball world this winter when they were able to unload Vernon Wells and almost all of the $86 million left on his seven-year, $126 million agreement to the Angels. Getting out from under deals like that doesn’t happen often.

But that’s assuming the Nationals will, at some point, want to rid themselves of an albatross. If Werth, a self-acknowledged late bloomer, continues the progression he was on during the past three years with the Phillies (averaging 29 home runs and 84 RBI while batting .279), there won’t be any problems paying him $83 million of that $126 million in the final four years of his deal.

“There’s no pressure whatsoever,” Rizzo said. “The deal is done. We got the player we wanted to get; he just has to be himself. If he’s himself, he’s going to put up terrific numbers and be the player we wanted to bring in here.

“I certainly don’t feel any pressure over it, and I don’t feel he does either.”

In his first five weeks with the team, Werth has been a model citizen. He’s taken a leadership role within the clubhouse, shared his knowledge of the opposition and perspective with teammates, and, despite a statistically mediocre spring, his approach at the plate - taking upward of five and six pitches each at-bat, for example - and his preparation have already been noticed.

“I couldn’t be happier with what he’s done,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “But we have to see how things shake out when things get tough. There’s no team where everything’s good all the time, and the slightest thing can change people’s perception of each other. … Your character is judged in bad times, not good times, so we have to hope that these good vibes that are flowing will continue through the season.”

“When you sign a big contract like that, a lot of responsibilities come with it,” Riggleman added. “The only one of those responsibilities I would be in tune to is effort. … All eyes are going to be on him. So if you ever drop your head, if you ever jog down the line, if you ever don’t chase a ball after missing it - anything that’s perceived as a lack of a great effort - people are going to feel like, ‘We paid too much money for this guy.’ “

Ted Lerner, who ultimately authorized that expenditure, has a reputation for being a visionary, for making calculated business deals and having the foresight to gauge what will work in the future. A 2007 Washingtonian magazine profile described the Nationals‘ owner as someone who “buys at the right time, builds quality properties and rarely sells. He never speculates or flips, he thinks decades into the future.”

The Lerner family has committed its trust to Rizzo to do that with the Nationals and pledged its commitment to bringing a winning team to Washington. In many ways, Werth and his contract symbolize everything Washingtonian wrote about Lerner four years ago.

How it plays out from here will determine whether the Nationals invested their money and hopes in the right player - but they’ve got a long time to find that out.

“Jayson’s here for seven years,” Riggleman said. “He doesn’t have to do it all the first year. I would venture to say that in seven years, he’ll probably have some really big years and some years that are good but not [great].

“But the effort and intensity and body language - those things have to be such that we have a positive feeling about what’s going on here.”



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