There has been no shortage of well-deserved hype over the potential of a team built on Strasburg's arm, Bryce Harper's seemingly limitless potential, and a strong supporting cast of players who, for the most part, have yet to turn 30.
There is, however, one conspicuous outlier in the Nationals' roster of young and reasonably paid players. That is right fielder Jayson Werth, whose signature graces the most absurd and unfathomably huge contract in the major leagues. For all the focus on Strasburg and Harper, the nearly $100 million still owed to Werth could be a significant drag on the Nationals' future and their ability to hold on to their young stars.
When Werth signed with the Nationals in 2010 for seven years and $126 million, baseball executives were furious with Washington. Werth was a solid player for the Philadelphia Phillies, but he had never been a star or put up huge offensive numbers despite being surrounded in the lineup by talent and hitting in the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park. Executives around the league worried about the inflationary effect of signing an above-average player to superstar money.
Werth had never had 100 RBIs, hit .300, or had more than 164 hits in a season. He had one 30-home run season and one All-Star appearance to his credit. Nonetheless, Rizzo saw fit to sign Werth to a deal that was one of the largest in league history and would pay him an average of roughly $111,000 per game over the seven-year length of the contract.
The idea behind the signing seemed to be that the Nationals could continue to develop their young talent but have a solid, if somewhat overpaid, veteran in right field to anchor the team. The first part of the equation has worked to perfection, as Strasburg looks more like an ace with each start and Harper is playing less like a Rookie of the Year than a Most Valuable Player. With other young talents in Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, the future looks promising. While the young talent is doing their part, Werth isn't producing anywhere close to what his contract demands.
In his first year with the team, he hit a paltry .232 with only 58 RBIs and 20 home runs. He missed half of last season and now, at 34, has been a consistent but unspectacular contributor, hitting .259 with only nine RBIs. By all accounts, Werth is a hard worker and a great clubhouse presence who is a great fit for a young team. Unfortunately, $126 million is a steep price to pay for 50-something RBIs and a great attitude.
Having Werth doesn't hurt the Nationals this year, even if he is massively overpaid. The team should be more concerned about the years ahead. Even with Strasburg and Harper making less than $6 million combined this year, the team payroll is $118 million, and they are already committed to $79 million for next year. While Strasburg and Harper won't be eligible for free agency for some time, they will likely get multiple raises through arbitration well before that point. The same scenario applies to Zimmerman, Desmond, Ross Detwiler and Wilson Ramos.
What makes the situation even more difficult is that Werth's salary actually escalates after this year to $20 million next season and then $21 million for each of the final three years of his contract. And just to squeeze the bottom line a bit more, at year's end Ryan Zimmerman will still be due at least $88 million for his long-term term deal.
These kinds of situations obviously aren't unusual for teams. No general manager can keep every player he wants and sign every young star to long-term deals. What's different about the Nationals' situation is that their predicament is completely self-inflicted, brought about by a contract that seemed utterly absurd at the time and seems even more so now. The team may end up having to let some members of its young core sign elsewhere while paying an aging Werth tens of millions of dollars.
Although a lot of the pieces have fallen into place in Washington, a $126 million mistake doesn't go away easily. There's no shortage of players on the roster who are in the early stages of productive big-league careers. What remains to be seen is if the Nationals can overcome past missteps and make sure they stay in Washington.
John Cannon is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington D.C. area and covers the Washington Nationals.
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