On Monday, Scott Campbell from the Huffington Post ranked Jayson Werth's contract as the worst in baseball. Following a season in which Werth hit just .232/.330/.389 for the Washington Nationals, he is still owed $115 million over the next six years, at the end of which he'll be 38. For Campbell, that was "enough said." For many others, the feeling is the same: Werth was an overpay for the Nationals, and had a disappointing 2011. Ergo, his contract -- and Werth -- are terrible for the Nats.
Is that the case, though? It was one bad year, for a player who has been good enough to be offered a seven-year, $126 million contract. That's not to excuse the deal on the grounds that a Major League Baseball team felt it was worth handing out -- the Vernon Wells and Barry Zito contracts weren't good ideas even without the benefit of hindsight -- but is more of a reminder that Jayson Werth is real good at baseball.
It took Werth a long time to get going in the majors due to multiple wrist surgeries and an assortment of other maladies. Once he was locked in full-time, though, he was even better than expected.
Werth hit .282/.380/.506 for the Philadelphia Phillies from 2007 through 2010. He launched 95 homers over four seasons. He also had 199 extra-base knocks in that stretch, walked 274 times, and even stole 60 bases while being caught just eight times, for an 88-percent success rate. Werth also added a few runs of value per season with his other baserunning; he wasn't just fast, but also a smart runner.
Lefties were the main source of his production, as the right-handed Werth absolutely mashed them while with Philly, to the tune of .309/.413/.589. Out of his 95 homers with the Phils, 41 of them came against southpaws, and in just 559 of his total 1,798 at-bats with the club. He was no slouch against righties, though, hitting a combined .270/.364/.468 against them.
Baseball-Reference's split-adjusted OPS shows how much better or worse a player was in a particular split -- in this case, righties versus righties -- than the rest of the league, on the same scale as OPS+ (100 is average, above 100 is percent above-average). Werth might have been better against lefties, but he was always dangerous:
|sOPS v. RHP||sOPS v. LHP|
In addition to his bat and his legs, Werth was also more than capable, defensively. Most of the defensive systems rate him as somewhere between above-average and worth a win per year with his glove over the last five seasons. From a scouting perspective, he has a plus arm, and while he isn't the rangiest player around, moving to center field for the Nationals isn't exactly like moving Miguel Cabrera back to third base.
Where has all of the negativity for Werth come from? Part of it has to do with expectations that his bat would suffer outside of hitter-friendly Citizen's Bank Park, where Werth hit .294/.383/.528 during his time with the Phillies, and part of it is in his failure to be an impact player in the first year of his lucrative contract.
Neither of those is fair to Werth, though, as he owned a .270/.377/.484 line outside of CBP, with 44 of his 95 homers and 103 of his 199 extra-base hits coming outside his home park's walls. Sure, he was better in Philly than out of it, but given his defensive skills, baserunning, and the fact his plate discipline worked regardless of locale, it's not as if the Nats were paying for nonexistent production.
As for his 2011, Werth was disappointing at the plate -- there is no questioning that. His 97 OPS+ pegged him as slightly below-average offensively, and when compared to what other right fielders were doing, he looks even worse (right field is the second-most productive offensive position, besides first base).
Nothing broken in 2011 looks broken forever, though. Werth, who as you saw already has dominated left-handed pitching in his career, had an uncharacteristically poor season against southpaws in 2011. His line was just .184/.307/.368 against them, with a .224 batting average on balls in play. Against right-handers, Werth had an sOPS of 111 -- in line with all of his Philly seasons excepting 2010 -- but the 80 he threw up against lefties killed his season. Given the BABIP and his past history against lefties, it's safe to think this isn't the start of a trend.
If Werth continues to be a bit above-average against right-handers, as he always has, but goes back to even a fraction of his lefty-smashing ways, 2011 will vanish in the rear-view mirror fast. Even with all of the disappointment at the plate in 2011, Werth was still valued as an above-average player: Baseball Prospectus, Baseball-Reference, and Fangraphs all rated Werth at over two WAR thanks to his other contributions.
There is room for failure in this deal, of course, but the assertion that Werth is already a loss for the Nationals -- or that he has the worst contract in baseball -- misses out on just what Werth has been and is capable of producing in the majors. After 2012, it will likely be easier to remember that, even if the long winter makes the last time Werth was excellent seem far away.