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May 20, 2014

Painting the Black

The Werth-Case Outcome

by R.J. Anderson

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When the Nationals signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year deal worth $126 million, back in winter 2010, the expectation was that they would come to regret the decision.

The reasons were obvious. Werth was a 31-year-old corner outfielder who was closer to good than elite. Moreover, the Nationals were closer to bad than average. Washington had gone five years since its most recent .500 effort, and in the previous season had won just 69 games. True, the Nats had an impressive array of young talent climbing the organizational depth chart, but it seemed Werth would be in his mid-30s and on the decline by the time those kids matured. All those variables factored into a rival general manager telling Ken Rosenthal that the deal was “Absolutely bat[flipping] crazy.”

Detroit's decision a few years earlier to ink Magglio Ordonez became the chic comparison in the following days (perhaps because the Nationals also had Ivan Rodriguez in tow). Signing Werth was less about the player, defenders of the deal said, and more about the implicit statement; this was a plant-your-flag deal that announced to the league the Nationals were serious about winning games—or, at the very least, shedding their loser label. Scott Boras even played that tune:

"So, in addition to growing for the player's performance, the brand in Washington is now a different brand. It is now an acknowledged brand. Their fans know it. Other players know it. And it provides a brand value to the franchise that did not exist prior to Jayson Werth signing."

We're about halfway through the contract now, give or take a few weeks, and you know what? The Werth contract is not a disaster; in fact, it looks like fine.

Part of the improved standing has to do with the money flying around the league; eight players, including four free agents, agreed to deals last offseason that guaranteed more money than Werth received. The wild-haired outfielder helped his own cause by rebounding from a sluggish first season. Since 2012, Werth has batted .308/.392/.485 while stealing 21 bases (on 24 attempts). Add in the qualitative aspects—a memorable postseason home run, a "Mean Girl" reference, and some surreal Ben Bernanke encounters—and Nats fans have plenty of reasons to embrace their former rival.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are left asking questions, like: is Werth's contract the best of that free-agent class? The answer is no, of course; the best returns on investment are almost always yielded by one-year deals, such as the one signed that winter by Melky Cabrera. However, if we thin the pool a bit, by limiting it to big-monied deals of (to pick a round number) at least $50 million, then the answer remains the same, but more thought is required.

Just where does Werth's contract fall in line among his former free-agent peers? Let's take a look.

Deals worse than Werth's

Adam Dunn
Contract: Four years, $56 million
WARP gap (Werth's minus the player in question's; includes 2014): 10

After a dreadful first season on the south side, Dunn has hit .215/.333/.455 in the seasons since; an improvement, no doubt, but the resulting OPS+ would have been the lowest of his pre-Chicago career. Given the negative value he provides in the field (when he plays) and on the basepaths, Dunn has to really mash for WARP to view him favorably. He hasn't, so it doesn't. There's no argument in Dunn's favor.

Carl Crawford
Contract: Seven years, $142 million
WARP gap: 7

The biggest disappointment of the 2010 free-agent class. Crawford entered the offseason as arguably the top player available; he was a tremendous athlete entering his age-29 season after posting a career-high slugging percentage. Crawford had stolen at least 40 bases in seven of the previous eight seasons, and had played in 140-plus games in six of the eight. Since signing with the Red Sox, however, Crawford has stolen 44 bases and topped out at 130 games played. Werth has performed much better while making less money. There's no argument in Crawford's favor.

Derek Jeter
Contract: Three years, $51 million
WARP gap: 7

Officially, Jeter signed for three years and $51 million. The Captain has since added another year to that deal, which paid him an additional $12 million, pushing the total deal to four years, $63 million; for comparison, Werth will have made the same through his first four seasons. Jeter performed well over the first half of the deal, but lost last season to injury, and has weathered a rough start to his farewell tour. Those smart lads with a healthy skepticism of defensive metrics can question whether Jeter has really been worth -2.5 wins with the glove over the past four years, especially when he's missed so much time. But even a conservative estimate leaves the gap too wide to give Jeter the nod.

Deal (maybe) worse than Werth's

Victor Martinez
Contract: Four years, $50 million
WARP gap: 6

Martinez has the better argument than any of the names above. Although he missed the 2012 season due to injury, the catcher-turned-designated-hitter has provided the Tigers with well-above-average offense in the other two-plus seasons. According to OPS+, Martinez has been a toenail better than Werth over their current contracts (125 to 124). While Martinez has done a little more damage, he's done it in fewer plate appearances and at a less important position. There are some caveats here: Martinez probably plays more first base if he weren't on the same team as Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera; Werth might be overrated by defensive metrics; Martinez is cheaper, and comes with a shorter term; and so on. The WARP gap seems definitive, but this one feels closer than that.

Deals better than Werth's

Cliff Lee
Contract: Five years, $120 million
WARP gap: -3

The point of contention here is not that Werth is worse than Lee, but that he's within three wins. Baseball-Reference's WAR gives Lee—who has pitched 734 innings since 2011, complete with a 136 ERA+ and 6.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio—a double-digit lead in wins. Obviously, when both deals are over, Lee will have made comparable money over fewer years. He's earned that higher annual average—perhaps by more than WARP suggests. It's tough to argue Werth has been a better signing than Lee.

Adrian Beltre
Contract: Five years, $80 million
WARP gap: -5

Beltre's three-plus seasons as a Ranger* deserve more attention than they receive, and you have something special if you include his one year in Boston. To wit, Beltre has posted a 134 OPS+ since leaving Seattle, all while playing well-above-average defense at the hot corner. Evan Longoria, who appears to be on a Cooperstown pace, has a 136 OPS+ over the same time—and he's six and a half years younger. No matter what happens, Beltre will make at least $30 million less than Werth. That difference can only increase, though, as he has a vesting option worth $16 million for the 2016 season. There's no argument for Werth over Beltre.

*Here's a fun what-if scenario to ponder: what if the Rangers had kept Lee and not signed Beltre that winter. Where would Beltre be now? Better yet, where would Yu Darvish be?

So Werth's deal is at least the fourth-best from the big-monied signings, and at most the third. Is that an ideal outcome at the midway point from the player who received the second-biggest guarantee? No. Is it a tolerable outcome? Yes. Obviously the remaining duration will determine whether the initial fears were correct. But for the time being, the Nationals have reason to be content with their big investment—particularly when compared to the rest of the bankbuster deals from that winter.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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