Jayson Werth does not want to admit something. He strokes his beard, which has been trimmed from homeless chic to Brooklyn requisite, and considers whether to come out with it. This goes against one of his strictest rules.
"I hate to give him any credit at all," Werth said. "I really do. But … "
Even at 34, Werth is still growing, still evolving, still open-minded enough to recognize that paying Bryce Harper a compliment, especially one this big, is not the worst thing. He will hear about it, certainly, from the 20-year-old Harper, whom he has terrorized with pranks and antics and other such things acerbic veterans use to ground wunderkinds, and from pretty much everyone else in the Washington Nationals clubhouse.
When they ask how he became the cream filling in the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout Oreo cookie – how Werth's post-All-Star break OPS of 1.141 is behind only Cabrera's and ahead of third-place Trout's – he will harken back to days of watching Harper take batting practice earlier this year, of seeing just how high he places his hands before his swing. It got Werth to thinking of how much more elevated his hands once were.
"Bryce was probably the reason I did raise them again," Werth said. "I hate to admit it. But, yeah."
When the Nationals lavished $126 million on Werth three years ago to help drag the franchise from baseball's doldrums into its penthouse, this is what they envisioned: sixth in the National League with a .324 batting average, fourth with a .402 on-base percentage, ninth with a .523 slugging percentage, a multipurpose threat whose patient plate appearances drive opposing pitchers positively mad and set an example for one of the game's most disappointing teams.
No matter what Werth does, he cannot do it in a vacuum. Everything runs through the prism of that contract, the best and worst thing to happen to him. The seven-year deal with Washington was the truest proof that Werth belonged after too many times being told he didn't. It also thrust him into the nine-figure stratosphere that judges players by an entirely unique standard. A $90 million contract is really good. A $100 million-plus contract demands superstardom, and anything short of that is an invitation to criticize.
"People see the contract and see you in a totally different way," Werth said. "A big number begins to define you. It's not easy to get used to how the perception changes.
"Initially you feel it. You go to a place where no one knows you, really. Nobody knows who you are, so you get that stamp put on you pretty quick. And the dynamic of the whole thing – whether it's guys not knowing your humor or anything else – is that the perception of who you are is the biggest thing."
When Werth looks in the mirror, he sees more than the beard. He sees the boy who wanted to be a ballplayer and took 500 swings a day in his backyard. He sees the teenager drafted by Baltimore, traded to Toronto, traded to Los Angeles, released and left to linger until Philadelphia rescued him. He sees the man who signed that contract knowing life would change and still having no idea just how much.
In the years leading up to the deal, Werth won a World Series with the Phillies and saw how nine-figure deals turned cannibalistic on those who signed them. Everyone from Alfonso Soriano to Barry Zito to Carlos Lee had turned into nothing more than antecedents for the main point. Always the story would go: Soriano/Zito/Lee, whose $136/$126/$100 million contract is a/an albatross/disaster/mess …
The last thing Werth wanted was to turn into that. And he did. He and Carl Crawford bombed their first years after signing deals for more than a quarter-billion dollars in free agent money. Then Albert Pujols struggled. And Josh Hamilton this year.
"It's a real thing, man," Werth said. "Switching teams is a real thing."
More than anything, Werth wanted to destigmatize his contract that first season and show his teammates that his sardonic humor would fit well into the clubhouse, that despite playing a secondary role with the Phillies he did have it within him to be a voice. Hitting .232/.330/.389 derailed that plan, and Werth spent so much time trying to figure out his own foibles that it wasn't until September 2011 he finally felt fully comfortable.
Once a broken wrist healed in 2012, Werth flashed pieces of the game that made him so beloved in Philadelphia. And this year he has proven himself invaluable to the Nationals, every bit as important as Harper and fellow $100 million man Ryan Zimmerman. He, more than either of his younger contemporaries, can stare at this miserable Nationals season and chalk it up to anomaly. And people will listen.
"The vision here was good. It still is," Werth said. "The vision was true. And you can see the direction and type of talent we had. That was all still there when things turned around, and it is now."
Harper will grow into a monster, and Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond will complement him, and a pitching rotation of Stephen Strasburg-Jordan Zimmermann-Gio Gonzalez-Ross Detwiler-Taylor Jordan will go to a World Series some day if their arms hold up, because that's too much starting pitching not to.
And in both the forefront and the background will lurk Jayson Werth, careful not to spend too much time in either place. Today he feels much more like CC Sabathia or Prince Fielder or Zack Greinke, someone who knows success with a team-switch and a $100 million-plus contract, who through skill and smarts turned a potentially untenable situation into a great one.
One person deserves credit for that. And it ain't the kid.