Former Philadelphia Phillies executive Pat Gillick is in line to be inducted into the hall of fame this year along with second baseman Roberto Alomar and pitcher Bert Byleven. The exec held a conference call yesterday to discuss a myriad of issues. According to MLBTradeRumors.com, Gillick, who once signed Jayson Werth for under $1 million, said he was “stunned and shocked” by the contract the Nationals gave the right fielder.
"It wouldn't have been something I would have recommended," Gillick said, according to MLBTR.
This is an interesting case of unreal expectations meeting unbelievably terrible performance.
Gillick’s opinion on the deal was likely echoed by most executives at the time of Werth’s 7-year $126 million signing. The general trend in baseball had been to move away from long-term mega-deals, as they had crippled many teams during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
On top of that, you would be hard pressed to find an executive in baseball who would have said that Werth was worth that kind of money. Many viewed him as a second tier star. In 2010 he ranked just 14th in the National League in WAR with 5.2, and the year before he ranked 12th with 5.0, which surely made him the type of player that any contending team would pay a good deal of money for, but over $100 million? Many thought that was pushing it.
With the Nationals though, the entire playbook had to be thrown out. The club had been very cautious with their money throughout their history, opting to move on from the likes of Alfonso Soriano and Adam Dunn. However in five years in Washington they hadn’t been able to win, and despite making major offers to players like Mark Teixeira, very few people took them seriously on the market. Then, out of nowhere, Werth signed with the club for the alarming total listed above.
What followed was very interesting. Throughout the rest of the “hot stove” period in baseball, Washington was considered a major player in any and all deals. There were rumors that they were right in the thick of things to sign top free-agent Cliff Lee, and they also were a thumbs up away from landing former Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke. Following Werth’s singing the Nationals weren’t able to acquire any of the athletes they had hoped, but one thing was clear, they paid the premium to become players in the market.
It is likely the Nationals knew they overpaid to get Werth, but they viewed it as a way to get their chips on the table. Washington had to be taken seriously, and they had to shed the stigma of being shallow-pocketed losers. They did that, very effectively.
Fast forward to July, and the Werth contract is not looking so brilliant in the Nation’s capital. Werth has been bad, shockingly bad in fact. Through 89 games this season he is hitting just .216/.321/.362 with 0.4 WAR. While many in baseball circled believed he couldn’t live up to the contract he signed, nobody saw this coming from a guy who had been robotically consistent for the past three years.
Unfortunately for Washington, the fact that they overpaid for a guy who is underperforming makes their winter dealings look even worse. While many in the know understood that Werth was overpaid simply to get him into a Nationals jersey, the average fan likely expected to see Werth play like a $126 million player. Instead, he’s played below replacement level, and the fans are starting to turn.
What is causing Werth’s terrible performance is unknown. One option may be that at 32 years of age, he simply has passed his peak. While most players usually go strong into their mid 30’s, some see an earlier decline. Another option is that he benefited from being in a Phillies lineup that boasted All-Stars like Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins. It’s possible that the transition to a lineup where he became the top slugger was not one he could handle.
There is of course, one other explanation, which would be the most disappointing of all. As we all know, signing a contract of that magnitude can put a stigma on that player. Werth has always been valued as the underrated, underpaid outfielder for a great team, but perhaps the transition to being the overpaid underperforming outfielder for a mediocre team has not one he’s been able to make.