As Winter Meetings begin, an inside look back at the Jayson Werth signing
by Amanda Comak
ORLANDO – Even now, three years later, the details are still fresh.
The quietly planned flight that Washington Nationals then-Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo took — along with Managing Principal Owner Ted Lerner, and Principal Owner Mark Lerner — from Florida to California that November day in 2010. The preparation that went into what they were headed to do. The pitch. The deliberations.
And reeling in the biggest free agent in the organization’s history, shocking the baseball world as it descended upon Orlando for that year’s Winter Meetings.
Since 2010, the Sunday of Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings usually brings about some reminiscing, particularly in the D.C. area. It seems everyone has a story about where they were when they heard the news that the Nationals had called a press conference to announce their seven-year, $126 million pact with Jayson Werth.
For some, it serves as a reminder of when things changed for the Nationals, when they entered “Phase Two” of their plan to construct a championship-caliber team. That part seems to have played out largely as they’d hoped. Two years later, the Nationals barreled through all comers to take the National League East Division title, and have been viewed as contenders ever since.
But even for signature Winter Meetings deals, like Werth’s, there’s often far more that comes before the bombshell drops.
“I think very few deals begin at the Winter Meetings and end at the Winter Meetings,” Rizzo said last week, as he and his staff prepared to head back to Orlando for this year’s gathering.
“There are many more cases where they start at the General Managers Meetings and end at the Winter Meetings. I think you lay foundations early in the offseason, and they either get announced at the Winter Meetings or the final decisions, after really going through the process, end at the Winter Meetings.”
So as the Nationals get set for another Winter Meetings, let’s take an inside look back at how that deal went down.
Shortly after the 2010 regular season came to an end, the Nationals honed their list of offseason targets. As Rizzo and his front office team began to put together a detailed plan for ownership of where they saw the team in one, three and five years, they surveyed the big-ticket free agents on the market.
There was third baseman Adrian Beltre, coming off an All-Star season in Boston, outfielder Carl Crawford, set to leave the Tampa Bay Rays, and Werth, who had just put together a career year.
Crawford didn’t fit for the Nationals, but Beltre and Werth intrigued them. At the GM Meetings, Rizzo met with agent Scott Boras, who represents both players. Rizzo expressed the team’s interest in both – and trying to sign both, at least for a short while, appeared to be a possibility. They planned to meet with both players at Boras’ offices in Los Angeles a few days later. They flew directly there after the Owners’ Meetings had wrapped.
The Nationals liked Beltre. Rizzo called their meeting with him “great.” But he didn’t fit perfectly, because acquiring him meant moving a Gold Glove third baseman – either Beltre or Ryan Zimmerman – to first.
Werth, on the other hand, would require no such shuffling. And if the attraction wasn’t mutual at the start, it had begun to feel that way by the meeting’s end.
“We really had a great meeting with Jayson,” Rizzo recalled.
The Nationals laid out for Werth the same plan Rizzo had put together for ownership. They showed him where they expected to be in one year, in three years, and in five years. They broke down future payrolls, told him about young Major Leaguers – like Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond – and how they expected them to develop in a few years, along with the likes of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
“We showed him the future of what we were trying to do here,” Rizzo said. “I think we really sold him on the fact that we wanted him. We were going to make him the center of our franchise. A guy who would teach us how to win, give us a championship pedigree, and really pave the way for other big-time players to come to us. I think the way we mapped it out to him, the way we evaluated it, and the honestly with which we spoke to him (opened his eyes).”
Werth paid close attention.
Late in the 2013 season, Werth was moving a few things at his Virginia home and found some of the notes he’d made during the free agency process. What he’d written down about the Nationals still hit home.
“(I wrote that) we would be good toward the end of my contract,” Werth said.
The success had come sooner than he anticipated at that initial meeting, but the Nationals detailed, long-term plans had made an impact on him.
“I think (being as prepared as we were at that meeting), was one of the main reasons we got him,” Rizzo said. “He had a lot of options.”
After the meeting at Boras’ Los Angeles offices, Werth and Rizzo took a walk to chat about what the team had put in front of the outfielder. Rizzo spoke then in an unfiltered manner, unloading “both barrels,” honestly. He’d known Werth a long time, so he leveled with him.
“He could’ve easily gone to Boston,” Rizzo said of the Red Sox, who had also courted Werth. “I told him, ‘You can be one of the guys in Boston, or be one of the guys in Philly, or be the guy in Washington.’ I think I appealed to his competitiveness. I knew he was that type of guy.
“It was a risky route to go, but I thought it would appeal to him.”
But the Nationals had a decision of their own to make. They knew Werth was looking for a long-term deal, and, as Rizzo has acknowledged several times, they knew they may have to pay a premium in dollars and years – relative to the more established contenders – to get him.
In that vein, they came away from the meeting impressed as well.
The Lerners found Werth’s meticulous nature – his unique workout regimen, his nutritional awareness and specifications – to be a positive with regard to his ability to be productive over the life of a deal that could span as many as five, six or even seven years. Because Werth detailed for them the way he planned to continue to take care of himself in the future, “We felt as comfortable as we could be about giving a guy a long-term contract,” Rizzo said.
A seventh year, and a no-trade clause were the final sticking points.
“We discussed and deliberated over it,” Rizzo said. “I knew we were losing all ties (with Werth’s other suitors). That was it. The decision was: do we hold the line and negotiate this thing out? Or do we pay and get the player? And we decided we needed this guy at this time in our franchise, for a bunch of reasons.
“(At the time, having just seen Adam Dunn head to free agency), we had no commitments whatsoever with payroll. We knew we’d have to be careful, we knew Zimmerman’s day was coming, and how many nine-figure players can you have on one roster? Where does it end? You’ve got to make some hard decisions. (But) we really felt the connection with Werth, not only because of the relationship that I had with him going in, but because he appealed to us as a guy who was thinking about, and preparing for, his career down the road. You could see he was really focused in on five, six, seven years down the road.”
When the Nationals unveiled Werth at a press conference at Nationals Park the following week, the man who has become such a part of their identity revealed a little bit about how much he’d bought into the process he was about to help expedite.
“I’ve always been a big fan of an underdog,” Werth said that day. “I’m coming to be a part of something much greater than you’ve seen in this city.”
Three seasons into his contract, Werth and his teammates have already seen a sliver of that success. And a deal that was maligned by some rival executives at the time may be viewed differently now.
Given the fact that he is coming off his age-34 season with the best OPS of his career (.931), and the rising prices on the free agent market, it’s not inconceivable that – if Werth were a free agent – he could be signed to something like a four-year, $72 million contract ($18 million average annual value) this offseason.
And while the overall value of his contract can’t be determined for a few more years, looking back right now, the Nationals have no regrets.
“If we get 130 games of the Jayson Werth we’ve seen the last two years, for the next two or three years — if he’s (offensively) the guy he should be, and plays good right field and leads us in the clubhouse — then he’s exactly what we wanted.
“But I’ll say this: I would do it again, at this point, knowing what we’ve got.”