Werth, Greinke & the Nats Offseason Part I: Is Jayson Werth It?

This is an interesting topic I have wanted to tackle since all of the trades/free-agent signings went down this winter.  Washington’s beloved Nationals were highly scrutinized for the moves they made, as well as the ones they didn’t make.  Well my friends, baseball is a complicated game and a complicated business.  It has taken me almost 24 years of my life to understand major league baseball to the extent I do now, and still there are facets of the game that manage to allude my knowledge bank.  So let’s break down the big move the Nats made this offseason, and the big move they didn’t make, and I’ll show you why I think they made the right choices.  This first part is dedicated to the signing of outfielder Jayson Werth.  Enjoy!

Part I: Is Jayson Werth worth 7 years and $126 million?

My immediate reaction to this signing went something like this: “7 years and $126 million?!  For Jayson Werth?!  They’re crazy!”  Basically, my main points against the signing initially were these:

  1. Money – 7 years and $126 million is a lot of money for any player.  In my mind, that type of money should be reserved for players who are truly elite.  Werth is not an elite player.  He’s a very good player, but he’s not even close to Pujols/ARod territory.  Heck, he might not even be in the Ryan Howard/Adrian Gonzalez tier that follows.
  2. Age – He’s 31 and will be 38 when this contract expires.  You have to figure his speed, which is already disappearing, will be pretty much gone by then.  His defense, which was excellent in ’07 and ’08, fell to good in ’09 and then to below average in ’10.  His arm is still very good, and figures to be for the remainder of this contract, but his range is steadily decreasing.  He’s probably on a Jermaine Dye type decline here.
  3. Skill level – As mentioned above, Werth is a good player, but not a great one.  I had serious doubts about his ability to even competently replace Adam Dunn offensively in the middle of the Nats’ lineup.  He has never been better than the third or fourth best hitter in the Phillies’ lineup, and even that might be generous.  He will be expected to be the Nats’ second best hitter, behind 3B Ryan Zimmerman.  Were his skills simply enhanced by the fantastic lineup protection afforded him by that great Phillies lineup?

Owner Ted Lerner is willing to spend to put a winner on the field in DC.

So as you can see, I was less than thrilled with the signing on first glance.  It just didn’t make any sense to me for a low-payroll team to invest this much money in a player I didn’t think was elite.  And then I started hearing some form of this line multiple times, “Nationals Owner Ted Lerner, 85, is willing to spend and is anxious to put together a winner at his old age.”  Well that changed everything.  I was under the impression that the Nationals were a frugal franchise that couldn’t afford to spend on high-priced free-agents.  Their average payroll the last three years was about $51.5 million, peanuts in the baseball world.  Sure, they had made token runs at recent free-agents like Mark Teixeira, but they never appeared serious in their offers and had never landed anyone of note.  Well apparently old Ted Lerner has decided that he doesn’t have too many years left and he wants to build a contender sooner, rather than later.

You see, money in the baseball world is largely irrelevant…  if the owner makes it irrelevant.  Wait what?  Allow me to explain.  There is no salary cap in baseball.  It’s the only sport of the four major North American sports (basketball, football and hockey being the others) that has no cap.  So if the owner opens up the checkbook and says, “Go get me some players, I don’t care what it costs!”, there’s really not a ton of risk involved.  Take a look at the Yankees.  Their roster has a few horrible contracts every year.  Who cares?  The Steinbrenners have enough money to absorb that and still continue to sign players.

Now, if you are a cash-strapped, small-market franchise, that type of contract can hamstring your organization for years.  For example, in 1999 the Orioles signed slugger Albert Belle to a 5 year, $62 million (approximately) contract.  He mashed during his first two years in Baltimore, but then got hurt.  He spent the last three years of his contract sitting at home, injured, collecting his paychecks.  You see, all that money is guaranteed in baseball.  This isn’t football where half of the money in a contract is tied to bonuses, playing time, health etc.  That money is 100% guaranteed.  Basically this contract set the Baltimore franchise in a tailspin from which it has yet to recover.

In the case of that Nationals though, the Lerners appear to be ready to up the ante.  If they are willing to take chances on these types of contracts, and continue to spend money even if they don’t work out, I have no problem with this.  By handing out this money, they have also shown other prospective free-agents that they are willing to dole out the cash.  Make no mistake, DC is now a viable landing spot for upper-tier free-agents.

Jayson Werth’s new deal might not be as bad as most think.

Ok, so the money is basically a non-issue.  Let’s move on to problems two and three, Werth’s actual skill level and value on the field.  I’ve seen Werth play quite a bit during his time in Philly (I’m from the Philly area), and I have a pretty good idea of the type of player he is.  He’s at that point in his career where his athleticism is starting to erode, but a lot of the skills that get better with age are still improving.  He’s no longer going to steal 20+ bases per season, but he’s probably still a good bet for 10-15.  That’s really the only part of his offensive game that is in decline right now.  Add in his decreasing outfield range, and you have really the only two facets of his game that are currently in decline.

On the up side, there’s a lot to like.  His strikeout and walk rates both continues to move in the right directions, which is a good sign.  This can also be expected to continue as these are two skills that normally sharpen with age.  In 2008 Werth’s K rate was 28.5%, in ’09 it was 27.3% and in ’10 it was 26.5%.  That’s no small decrease.  His walk rate has also remained at a healthy level, hovering around the 12-13% mark the last three seasons.  I expect his walk rate to remain around that level and his K rate to continue to come down slowly.

His power and OBP (on-base percentage) have both continued to improve as well.  His SLG% rose from .498 in ’08, to .506 in ’09, and then to .532 in ’10.  That’s an elite level he’s at in terms of power.  His OBP marks from ’08 to ’10 were .363, .373, and .388 respectively.  He’s getting on base in almost 40% of his plate appearances.  Again, that is an elite number.

His batting average will probably fall a bit from last season as he was aided by a high BABIP (.352, MLB average is around .300).  I see him as more of the .268 hitter he was in ’09 than the .296 hitter he was this past season, but that’s okay.  Batting average is an overrated statistic and I would be more concerned with his OBP which, as you can see above, has been excellent.

Werth might not be an elite player, but his WAR says otherwise.

So what does this mean in the grand scheme of things?  How do we determine if Werth is really worth (pun intended) the contract he signed?  Well that’s where the magical statistic known as WAR, short for Wins Above Replacement, comes in.  For a rough definition of WAR, I turn to the experts at FanGraphs:

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an attempt by the sabermetric community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. You should always use more than one metric at a time when evaluating players, but WAR is pretty darn all-inclusive and provides a handy reference point. WAR basically looks at a player and asks the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a minor leaguer or someone from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?” This value is expressed in a wins format, so we could say that Player X is worth 6.3 wins to their team while Player Y is only worth 3.5 wins.”

If you’d like to read the full explanation, you can here.  A pretty great stat right?  I’m not even going to go into how it is calculated (trust me you don’t want to start down that road), but that’s the jist of it.

Anyways, Werth has been worth 5.1, 4.9 and 5.0 WAR the last three seasons respectively (you can check out Werth’s value statistics here).  To put that in perspective, that 5.0 WAR from last season made him the second most valuable position player on the Phillies’ roster (Chase Utley was first at 5.2, and yes he was more valuable than Ryan Howard).  To further put that into perspective, that number made Werth the 27th most valuable position player in the league and placed him ahead of players most would consider elite like Hanley Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki and Ryan Braun*.  That’s impressive company.

Now, here’s the best part: FanGraphs converts WAR into a monetary value which provides an approximation of what a player would make on the open market in free-agency.  Basically, last season one win above replacement was calculated to have been worth about four million dollars, so Werth was valued at $20 million evenly.  His WAR values for ’08 and ’09 valued him at $22.9 million and $22 million respectively.  With Werth’s new contract paying him an average of $18 million per season, he has a solid shot to at least be worth the value of that contract, if not outperform it.

Here’s the bottom line: 5 WAR players don’t grow on trees.  There were 29 position players in Major League Baseball who achieved that mark in 2010.  As a franchise, when you have a chance to sign a player of that caliber to a contract that statistics tell us is at or below market value, you do it.  I’m not going to declare this deal an emphatic win for the Nats (mostly because of the length of the deal), but it’s also not the abomination that many in the press were making it out to be.  If Werth can provide the production that he has displayed for the last three years in Philly over the first four or so years of this new deal before he starts to decline, he has a good shot at justifying this contract.  Hopefully he can do that and provide another solid middle-of-the-order bat to go with budding star Ryan Zimmerman and the host of other young talented players the Nats are breaking in.

Part II will discuss why the Nats didn’t trade for former Royal and current Brewers SP Zack Greinke and why that was probably a smart move.

*Remember that WAR takes defense and positional value into account.

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