When the Washington Nationals signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract before the 2011 season, the deal was widely criticized. It was made out to be symbolic of the further decline of baseball or something like that.
The criticism was certainly understandable. Werth, while an excellent player, was hardly a household name, had never hit .300 or knocked in 100 runs, and had made one All-Star team. He was also entering his age-32 season. So even though he was coming off his best season, giving a seven-year deal of that amount to any player from ages 32 to 38 is usually a bad idea. And $126 million for Jayson Werth seemed a little insane.
And it looked bad in 2011, when Werth hit just .232 with 20 home runs, his wins above replacement (WAR) dropping from 4.5 to 1.3. In 2012, he broke his wrist and played just 81 games. The injury sapped his power, but he did hit .300 with a .387 OBP, and the Nationals won the NL East. Still, at that point, the contract wasn't looking good, with five years and $99 million remaining.
But Werth was excellent in 2013, hitting .318 with 25 home runs -- even with the lingering effects of his broken wrist. "I’ve got one plate, three screws and eight pins in there," he told Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post last August. "It's never going to be 110 percent again. But I'm hitting as well as I ever have."
Despite playing through a shoulder issue, he's been very good again in 2014, hitting .283/.381/.446, ranking fifth in the NL in OBP and 10th in wOBA -- ahead of, among others, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, two players mentioned as MVP candidates, as well as teammate Anthony Rendon, also mentioned as a down-the-ballot kind of guy. The Nationals are going to win their second NL East title in three years, and Werth has been a key reason why.
So how does that contract look now?
Let's value each win above replacement at $6.5 million -- that's about the going rate on the free-agent market. Maybe it was a little lower in December 2010 and a little higher now (or trending higher), but $6.5 million serves as a rough proxy. At $126 million, Werth would have to earn about 19.3 WAR to justify the value of the contract.
Right now, he's at 9.9 WAR in his three-plus seasons, via Baseball-Reference.com (3.0 in 2014), and 11.2 via FanGraphs (3.7 in 2014). In other words, he has a chance to come close to reaching the 19.3 total WAR over the life of the contract. That doesn't necessarily mean it was a sweetheart of a deal for the Nationals. Back in March, when Miguel Cabrera signed his mega-extension, Buster Olney tweeted that he hadn't heard such disgust from executives since the Werth contract. The implication being that the Nationals went much, much higher for Werth than any other team had been willing to go.
So they did overpay at the time, which can't be ignored. But it's also not looking like a disaster of a contract, either. It shouldn’t be a big surprise that Werth has aged well; he's a good athlete, a minor league catcher converted to the outfield due to his speed. His walk rates have always been excellent, and that's a skill that generally holds up well. (Not always: See Albert Pujols.) Werth has actually cut down on his strikeout rate the past three seasons, which has helped him maintain his good batting averages.
Compare Werth to Josh Hamilton. Maybe Hamilton had the higher peak value, but his biggest weakness -- strike zone control -- is Werth's strength. Hamilton hasn't been the same player at ages 32 and 33 with the Angels that he was earlier with the Rangers. Or compare Werth to the more one-dimensional Prince Fielder, whose value is all wrapped up in his bat (same with Cabrera). Werth is still a plus on the bases, and while his defensive metrics aren't what they were during his best years with the Phillies, he's not a big liability in right field.
Werth's contract might have been a joke in December 2010. But the Nationals may yet get the last laugh.