Mike Rizzo spoke adoringly this week of Jayson Werth, and the outfielder’s ultimate season with the Nationals organization.
Heartfelt, emotional prose isn’t something you normally hear out of the General Manager and President of Baseball Operations. But that’s exactly how Rizzo felt watching Werth compete in his final regular season game in a Washington uniform last Sunday.
“It definitely was [emotional],” Rizzo told The Sports Junkies on Wednesday. “J-Dubya and I go way back. I’ve seen him since [he was] in high school in Springfield, Illinois. I played with his uncle in the minor leagues. So I know the family very well, I know Jayson very well.”
When the Nationals signed Werth — then a divisional foe who Nats fans had grown accustomed to hating — seven years ago, it was far easier to find critics of the move than objective observers, much less admirers.
Six years removed from the organization’s move from Montreal, Werth was the Nats’ first big free-agency splash, predating the big-league arrival of current franchise cornerstone Bryce Harper. Their other phenom, 22-year-old Stephen Strasburg, had just undergone Tommy John surgery.
The club was one year removed from back-to-back 100-loss seasons, and hadn’t so much as eclipsed average — 81 wins — since its inaugural 2005 season. Frankly, there wasn’t much to like about the Washington Nationals.
The Nats overpaid, to boot! One-hundred and TWENTY-SIX million dollars for an aging corner outfielder?
Competing front office executives were beside themselves with nightmarish visions of an exploding market for veterans. What’s worse, 2011 was arguably the worst season of Werth’s career. For those thinking the Nats had made a horrible mistake, they had plenty of evidence to affirm the belief.
“He’s a guy that we took a lot of criticism for when we signed him,” Rizzo said. “But we had a plan. We knew what this guy was all about. And as I said before, you sign the player, but you give these long-term guys to the character of the man.”
“We certainly struck it rich with Jayson,” he said.
What did Rizzo see that everyone else missed on?
How about a stockpile of young, impressionable minds on the horizon, for starters. Sixteen players on that 2011 squad where 25 years old or younger. Drew Storen (23), Wilson Ramos (23), Danny Espinosa (24), Ian Desmond (25) all had three years of big-league experience or less. Heck, even Ryan Zimmerman was still only 26.
Werth was a mercurial figure, one who crafted his outward appearance to match his standoffish public persona — it wasn’t uncommon for him to bat a microphone out of his face in Philadelphia — but he was a fearlessly confident leader. All that mattered was what happened on the field.
In other words, he was exactly what these Nats needed.
It may be cliche, but he knew what a winning looked like and imposed that optic onto the Nationals clubhouse with unflinching determination. People thought he was insane for ranting and raving about the fan base’s identity being shaped around a lovable loser for a mascot. Werth once organized an ambush to help Teddy get his first Racing Presidents win.
“Teddy’s gonna have to win a race,” Werth said after a Nats home loss (ahem, to Philly) in 2012. “It just goes along with the whole expectancy of losing that was here when I got here. ‘The Nationals lost again?’ OK. ‘Teddy lost again?’ No big deal. It’s a parallel.”
“People can laugh and say I’m out of my mind or whatever,” he said. “Maybe I am. Who knows? To me, the Presidents Race and Teddy Roosevelt are very symbolic of where this organization goes. It needs to be addressed. It needs to be answered.”
Werth’s mentality ripped through the clubhouse like a virus. Eventually, once the wins started coming (and coming, and coming, and coming), it was easy for teammates to buy in and match it. Those catatonic post-game faces of a 100-loss yesteryear transformed, into quiet confidence, even in defeat. With the resolve of Werth’s wisdom, they knew they’d bounce back. Turn the page to tomorrow.
“He taught us how to win,” Rizzo said. “He taught us how to be a Major League organization. I think that he brought a lot to the table that a lot of people didn’t account for when they were talking about the value of this player when we signed him. He’s been a big part of what we do here. He means a lot to me, personally and professionally. He’s a great guy to have around the ballpark, and I don’t know where we’d be without him.”
On Friday, Washington opens its National League Division Series against the defending champion Chicago Cubs, Werth’s last shot at teaching his fellow comrades one final lesson: How to win it all.