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December 14, 2010

On the Beat

A Werthy Disguise

by John Perrotto

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There always seems to be a mystery team involved whenever one of Scott Boras' top clients is involved in free agency. Boras has been accused many of times in the past of inventing those mystery teams, his detractors claiming the agent uses the ploy to drive up the price in negotiations.

However, when it came to outfielder Jayson Werth, there really was a mystery team. And the mystery team even emerged as the surprise winner when the Nationals signed Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract.

Boras never mentioned a mystery team. That enabled the Nationals to keep their cover.

"It's really hard in this day and age to make any kind of a deal without someone finding out and it becoming public," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I think it speaks to the professionalism on both sides that nothing ever leaked out about our talks. It's hard to fly to California to talk with a high-profile player and his agent without anyone noticing, but we did."

Because Rizzo works in Washington does not mean that he is ready to assume a position with the CIA. He isn't a master of disguise and doesn't have a taste for counterintelligence. His secret is working for an organization that has functioned in relative anonymity dating back to its beginnings as the expansion Montreal Expos in 1969.

"It helps when no one suspects you're trying to sign a player of Jayson Werth's caliber," Rizzo said with a smile. "The next time around, it won't be so easy to keep things quiet. We've probably blown our cover for good with this move."

The Nationals have been fortunate enough to select two immensely talented players with the first overall pick in each of the last two drafts in right-hander Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper. However, Werth is clearly the biggest impact player acquired at the major-league level since the franchise moved to the nation's capital in 2005.

Werth had a career-high .322 True Average last season. He figures to replace the production of first baseman Adam Dunn, who had a .308 TAv before leaving for the White Sox and a four-year, $56 million contract.

All eyes will be on Werth, who will be expected to lift an offense that averaged just 4.02 runs per game last season, ranking 25th in the major leagues and 14th in the National League. He also headed to a team that has finished last in the NL East for three straight seasons.

Nationals manager Jim Riggleman, though, says he will not put any extra pressure on Werth. Riggleman just wants the outfielder to blend with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (.318) and left fielder Josh Willingham (.308) in the middle of the lineup. The Nationals are also looking for a first baseman in free agency to replace Dunn, with Derrek Lee said to be their top target.

"I don't think that we are not really approaching it as, OK, you have to be the centerpiece of this organization," Riggleman said. "We just feel like he's [Werth is] a very good player that has done some great things in Philadelphia. His athleticism and his talent, he's surrounded by other good athletes, and you know, we just want to play baseball. We are not looking for him to come in redefine his numbers. If he does what he's done in the past, that's a great thing and if he does a little more, a little less, it's still going to be a great thing, because he's really done some great things last few years."

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Sandy Alderson was barely noticed during his first Winter Meetings as the Mets' GM. He never stepped to the podium in the press room to announce any player moves and wasn't swarmed by media when he did make an appearance in the lobby of the Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort.

The Mets never got involved in the chase for big-name free agents like Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, and Werth. Instead, they signed utility pitcher D.J. Carrasco for the bullpen and catcher Ronny Paulino to give a hand to Josh Thole behind the plate in what will be his first full major-league season.

"Were we in that market and not able to sign players after competing for them, there might be a level of frustration," Alderson said of making no major transactions at Lake Buena Vista. "But given what we expected coming in and where we are and where we expect to be going into spring training, given the level of our payroll currently, there's not real frustration on my part. But it also underscores the desirability of being in the market every year, which I think is our ultimate goal."

The Mets still have some needs, primarily a veteran starter to stabilize a rotation that will be without ace left-hander Johan Santana at the start of next season as he recovers from shoulder surgery. A fourth outfielder is also on the wish list. However, don't expect any of the moves to generate back-page headlines in the New York tabloids. Those will come in another offseason.

"From our standpoint, regardless of cost, we got the catcher that we think fits best for us, and the right-handed relief that was available at a reasonable cost," Alderson said. "We got the guy we wanted. So we were happy with both of those things. We didn't settle in either case. We might have to do that down the line, but we didn't do it here. Look, I love, I want, the Mets to make headlines," Alderson said. "And I'm a realist about certain things. So believe me, flying under the radar is not something that I expect the Mets to do on a long-term basis."

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The Athletics offered free-agent Lance Berkman two years and $16 million to become their designated hitter. He instead signed with the Cardinals for exactly half of that at one year and $8 million.

Another free agent, third baseman Adrian Beltre, let a five-year, $64 million offer sit on the table for a month without responding before the Athletics finally withdrew it. Free agent DH Jim Thome told the Athletics he wasn't interested before they ever made an offer.

The Athletics finally found a hitter to take their money Monday when they agreed to a one-year contract with DH Hideki Matsui as a free agent. So, why was it so hard for the Athletics to attract a hitter, especially since they seem ready to contend in the American League West with a young rotation fronted by left-hander Brett Anderson and right-hander Trevor Cahill? Well, a lot of it is Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum—the aging stadium is not only a pitcher's park, but it is one of the worst venues in professional sports.

"The facility is a hurdle," Athletics GM Billy Beane said. "That's a fact."

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The Pirates might not have rocked the baseball world last week at Disney, but they were quite active on the free-agent market as they agreed to terms on two-year contracts with right-hander Kevin Correia and outfielder Matt Diaz, and on a one-year deal with left-hander Scott Olsen. They also selected shortstop Josh Rodriguez from the Indians with the first pick in the Rule 5 Draft. He is expected to challenge incumbent Ronny Cedeno for the starting job.

However, GM Neal Huntington hinted that the free-agent signings could lead to significant trades before the offseason is over. The Pirates are willing to trade both left-hander Paul Maholm and catcher/outfielder Ryan Doumit. In fact, the Pirates would likely eat part of Doumit's $5.1 million salary in 2011 in the final year of his three-year, $13.5 million contract.

"Some people are intrigued by what we're doing, and it may be opening some more doors," Huntington said.

The Pirates would love to add pitching and middle-infield depth at the major-league level and the upper levels of the farm system.

"We've had a large number of conversations, trade-wise, free agent-wise," Huntington said. "Some have fallen off the cliff and gone nowhere. Some have led to things. Some are still in conversation. So, we feel like we've made ourselves better. That was the goal coming in, and we'll continue to work."

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MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The Red Sox and Yankees are involved in a lower-stakes battle for free agent left-handed reliever Brian Fuentes. … The Dodgers are hopeful of re-signing Scott Podsednik to be their left fielder and have free agent Bill Hall as their fallback plan. … The Rangers continue to try to find a trade partner for third baseman Michael Young, so they can try to sign Beltre, especially after losing out to the Phillies in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes. … The Athletics are looking to sign free-agent right-hander Brandon McCarthy. … Free-agent catcher Russell Martin is expected to pick the Yankees over the Red Sox and Blue Jays because they can offer more playing time. … Luis Castillo is expected to have plenty of competition in spring training for his job as the Mets' second baseman, as Daniel Murphy and Rule 5 selection Brad Emaus will get long looks. … The Diamondbacks have their eye on free-agent infielder Jorge Cantu.

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

Related Content:  Free Agent,  Jim Riggleman,  Free

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