The Washington Nationals have reached the three- quarter pole of their 2011 season. Considering that the Nats were minus injured All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman for 58 games and that ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg has yet to step on the mound in the majors this season, their 58-62 record is actually none too shabby even though they’ll finish third, at best, in the National League East, way behind Philadelphia and Atlanta.
However, it’s not too soon to declare the Jayson Werth signing a disaster. When Washington signed Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract on Dec. 5, I was sitting with colleagues John Keim and Rich Campbell in the media dining area of New Meadowlands Stadium getting ready for the annual Redskins’ debacle in the swamps of Jersey. We were all incredulous that the Nats had thrown so much money at a 31-year-old outfielder who was the fourth-most worrisome player in the Phillies’ lineup after Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins.
After another horrid season and with Strasburg likely on the shelf for all of 2011, new Nats general manager Mike Rizzo had convinced owners Ted and Mark Lerner to make a splash in free agency, but $18 million a year for Werth? The move seemed positively Snyderesque.
More than eight months later, it seems even worse. Werth is hitting .226 with 14 homers and just 45 RBI. He has struck out more than twice as many times, 123, as he has walked, 61. He has stolen 14 bases and been fine in right field, displaying a strong and accurate arm, but the Nats didn’t spend large for defense, especially there.
Werth actually started hot at the plate, going 4-8 in the season’s first two games, but he batted just .220 in April. With Zimmerman sidelined for all of May, Werth seemed to be not such a bad investment, hitting .287 with four homers and 14 RBI. But that would prove to be easily his best month.
Werth hit a pathetic .154 in June. Five days into July, veteran Nats catcher Pudge Rodriguez said, “I don’t worry about (Werth). I know that he’s going to hit and put up some numbers for us.”
However, Werth hit just .222 in July. On the last day of the month against non-descript lefthander Jonathon Niese of the equally mediocre New York Mets, Werth failed to connect on any of the first eight pitches he saw as the home crowd booed. The $18 million man looked to be worth $18.
Werth has been a little better this month, hitting .244, but with just a quarter of the season left, 2011 cannot be anything close to a success. If Werth, who will be 33 next May, were a stock, he would be, ahem, nearly worthless. But unlike the NFL, where the Redskins have been able to swallow the signing bonus but dispense with the rest of a free agent mistake’s contract, the Nats are stuck with Werth for six more seasons.
The good news is that Michael Morse, who’s three years younger, has come out of nowhere to become the hitter that Werth was supposed to be with a .323 average, 21 homers and 71 RBI. Zimmerman’s back, Strasburg will be soon and phenom Bryce Harper should be in Washington sometime next season.
All of this should ease some of the pressure that Werth obviously felt this year with the mammoth contract in the new city so maybe he’ll return to something akin to his Philadelphia form (.277, 29 homers, 84 RBI on average during his three full seasons with the Phillies) in 2012.
In the mean time, I have a suggestion for the Nats. Lose the Werth billboard in left-center field, which seems to mock rather than salute him, and replace it with the Hall of Stars of DC sports which has been egregiously shoved into a corner where it can hardly be seen.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.