Nationals make huge bet on Werth

Jayson Werth hit 27 home runs and tallied 85 RBIs last season

The Contract of Death struck again Sunday, and baseball recoiled. Before then, the mere mention of seven years for $126 million drew the most hilarious reactions from baseball executives: guffaws from 28 teams and nausea from the San Francisco Giants and Toronto Blue Jays, who gave Barry Zito(notes) and Vernon Wells(notes) the devilish deal and are regretting it still.

Its reappearance Sunday on the eve of the winter meetings caused horror and name-calling and plenty of gossipy talk for the lobby at the Disney's Swan and Dolphin resort, where the Washington Nationals announced the signing of outfielder Jayson Werth(notes). As shocking as was Werth's move to far from a baseball Mecca, even more so were the terms: not just the length, not just the average annual value but the combination of both for a player who until three years ago had never played full time.

The Nationals socked the sport in the face Sunday and in doing so inspired as many horrible puns on Werth's last name as they did questions about the intelligence of lavishing $18 million a year for three-quarters of a decade on a player who turns 32 in May. Baseball's free market is one of the great things about the sport, and it is also one of the most dangerous.

Because all it takes is one team – one with a complex or a dream – to upend the entire damn thing. And while the Werth contract won't change everything, just as the Alex Rodriguez(notes) deal didn't, just as the Zito pact didn't, just as all of the previous albatrosses didn't, the standard it sets in the present frightens the financially prudent.

This is a damn expensive bet on Werth, and while he keeps in excellent shape and plays top-notch defense and takes walks and hits for power and stays out of trouble – while he's pretty much everything teams look for – history casts aspersion on the deal. So few sluggers age well – particularly ones of the high-strikeout variety such as Werth – that guaranteeing him riches through his 39th birthday isn't the sort of gamble that comes with good odds.

What prompted the Nationals to do this, then, were those market-shifting factors mentioned before: an inferiority complex about their standing in the game and a dream to make baseball in Washington the sort of event that it most certainly now is not. The Nationals got a taste of it when Stephen Strasburg(notes) arrived, and with the Werth signing they're plotting more for his 2012 return and Bryce Harper's likely arrival than this next season.

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Werth, too, is banking on Washington's emergence as a star-packed team. Ryan Zimmerman(notes) is the National League's answer to Evan Longoria(notes). Strasburg was one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball before his elbow blew, and even if he returns at 90 percent, he's still an All-Star for the next decade. Harper destroyed the Arizona Fall League, full of top prospects, as an 18-year-old, and he should be a superstar before he can drink legally. Add in Drew Storen(notes), another future All-Star at closer, and Jordan Zimmermann(notes), who looked tremendous upon his return from Tommy John this year, and catching prospect Derek Norris, and suddenly the Nationals aren't handcuffed to last place in the NL East. Far from it.

"Now is the time to … really compete for division titles and championships," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "With a player of Jayson Werth's ilk, a two-way player, a guy who excels offensively, defensively, baserunning, exhibits five tools – that's the type of player we're looking for."

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Indeed he was. Werth is the sort of player plenty of teams covet. The Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees all inquired about him, and that only drove up the price for Scott Boras, his agent. Boras' negotiating the Strasburg and Harper contracts meant plenty of time learning the ins and outs of the Nationals' organization, and better than any agent he can sense and exploit weakness. This deal wasn't as much about need as it was capitalizing on eagerness.

And so a player whom compares to Brad Hawpe(notes), Kal Daniels, Corey Hart(notes), Curtis Granderson(notes) and Juan Rivera(notes) gets what could be the contract of the decade. Werth is a far better player than those five, sure, but he hasn't had the career of Matt Holliday(notes), for whom Boras could secure only seven years and $120 million last season.

The visit from Nationals owners Ted and Mark Lerner couldn't have hurt. Werth is extremely intelligent, well-spoken and, despite the scraggly beard that adorns his face, presentable. Though Boras didn't go into details about the Lerners' trip to California to meet Werth, it's easy to envision him charming the hell out of them.

Charm, apparently, costs more per ounce than gold. Because a player who convention figured would struggle to get nine figures is now sitting on a $126 million pile of cash, and the rest of the market is readying to readjust, aftershocks certain to follow, namely with Carl Crawford(notes) and the eight years and $160 million for which he can reasonably ask.

The Nationals care not what they did. "It's a big day," Rizzo crowed, and that it was. They made their splash. The rest of baseball gagged. Boras smirked. And the Contract of Death struck again, Jayson Werth its latest recipient, thrilled by the terms and hopeful he can end its curse.