- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2015

VIERA, Fla. — Jayson Werth wore a dark suit and dark-rimmed glasses as he watched Max Scherzer walk into the room for his introductory press conference. Scherzer, who had just signed a seven-year, $210 million contract with the Washington Nationals, was first asked to list the reasons he decided to play there.

“It’s pretty easy and it’s one: winning,” Scherzer said. “I think this team is capable of winning and winning a lot.”

Sitting in the front row, Werth listened to Scherzer’s answer and smiled. His thoughts drifted back to December 2010, when he, too, signed a massive long-term deal with the Nationals and he, too, sat between general manager Mike Rizzo and agent Scott Boras at that table. Back then, Werth said, his signing was “almost laughable” in baseball circles. It was publicly scrutinized by opposing general managers. Why would a marquee free agent want to go there?

So much is different now, Werth said.

“The culture’s changed,” he said Thursday. “From when I got here to now, it’s night and day. We’ve really turned the ship around.”

No one person can change the course an entire franchise, just as no one person is wholly responsible for the odds-on World Series favorite the Nationals have become. Hundreds of hands have molded the team as it currently exists, from scouts and coaches to bench players and ball boys.

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Yet as the Nationals held their first full-squad workout Thursday morning, opening another season filled with sky-high expectations, it was clear they would not be in this position without one Werth. When he arrived in Washington, the perception of the organization changed. The culture in the clubhouse changed. The cumulative effects will be on display in Viera for the next five weeks, as the Nationals prepare for their latest push toward October.

“We’ve got guys that are in contract years, so this is really the pinnacle of this team that I came in on,” Werth said. “Going forward, I think it’s going to be a little bit different. We have a chance to be competitive for a really long time. With this group of guys, I think this might be it.”

Prior to Werth’s arrival, the Nationals were, in Craig Stammen’s words, “the laughingstock of the league.” In the past three seasons, they had won an average of 62 games and finished last in the National League East each year.

Despite their failure, the Nationals were in some ways at a natural crossroads. They had just drafted Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with the No. 1 overall pick in consecutive drafts. The following year, they would take an injured prospect out of Rice named Anthony Rendon with the sixth pick.

Those players helped build the core of the 2015 Nationals, but Werth gave them direction. When he sat down with Rizzo and the Lerner family before signing a seven-year, $126 million contract, they showed the marquee free agent their plan. Werth bought in and, more importantly, paved the way for others to follow.

“I feel like it took one guy to get on board for others to see, for others to recognize it,” Kevin Frandsen said. “Not just because of the Bryces and the Strasses of the world. It’s going to take someone like a big-name free agent to come in and make it a cool thing to do. He did that. He’s a winning player, he’s always been a winning player wherever he’s been. So you’re taking a big-name free agent, a winning player that goes over here, and now, I think the ballgame changes a little bit.”

Werth won a World Series title with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. In Washington, he brought a championship mentality and unique presence to a team that had several budding leaders, including Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman, but none with his experience and savvy.

“He kind of helped us along because we’d kind of been learning on the fly, on our own, and didn’t really have a whole lot of veteran leadership,” Stammen said. “Guys went in and out of the organization. He was finally that steady force that could kind of keep us in the right direction and make sure we’re on that right path.”

Werth will turn 36 years old in May and is coming off arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder. He didn’t participate in Thursday’s workout, but he was out there, standing in the outfield with the rest of his position group.

“I think [Werth’s presence] has a ripple effect for all of us,” manager Matt Williams said. “He’s a vital part of our team, even when he’s not playing.”

As Werth sat in front of his locker later that afternoon, his right shoulder wrapped with ice to the collar bone, he glanced around the clubhouse. In the row of lockers on the other side of the room, five stalls stood side-by-side. Zimmermann. Scherzer. Fister. Strasburg. Gonzalez.

“You know, things are looking up,” Werth said. “My decision for coming here looks like a pretty good decision.”

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