Nats gamble on worth of Jayson Werth

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If you're the Washington Nationals and you're christening Major League Baseball's winter meetings with a contract that much of the industry views as extravagant -- if not mind-blowing -- it helps to have a certain comfort level as a base.

Outfielder Jayson Werth's seven-year, $126 million deal with Washington has been in the works for a while now, according to general manager Mike Rizzo and Werth's agent, Scott Boras. A pivotal moment in the process came two weeks ago, when Nationals owners Ted and Mark Lerner and Rizzo all hopped a flight west to personally court Werth at Boras' offices in Newport Beach, Calif.

But the seeds for this deal have been germinating for much longer than that.

The story begins when Rizzo was an area scout for the Boston Red Sox and watched Werth play catcher for his high school team in Springfield, Ill. Werth looked unnatural behind the plate because he was so tall and thin, but Rizzo took note of the athleticism, the sweet stroke and the long graceful strides when Werth ran the bases. The Baltimore Orioles did, too, and they selected Werth as the 22nd overall pick in the 1997 draft.

"It's part of your database in your mind on a guy," Rizzo said. "It's something I remembered and brought with me as Jayson developed as a player and a big leaguer and a big league star. I can look back and say, 'Here's where he's come from, here's where he is and here's where he's going.'"

Beyond that, Rizzo played minor league ball with Werth's uncle, Dick Schofield, and has a history of productive negotiations with Boras in the draft. Washington manager Jim Riggleman was a coach with the Dodgers when Werth was a young outfielder competing for playing time with Shawn Green, Milton Bradley and Gary Sheffield in Los Angeles, so he has firsthand knowledge of Werth's backstory. And the Nationals have spent the past four years getting thumped over the head by Werth as he blossomed into an All-Star with the Philadelphia Phillies, so they know what kind of damage he can inflict.

All those factors helped make it a little easier for the Lerners to give Werth $18 million a year through 2017. But as much as the personal relationships and shared histories helped, it ultimately came down to this: The Nationals were getting very uncomfortable with the idea of finishing second.

Washington has been a competitor for Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and other big-ticket free agents in recent years, without success. By signing Werth, who was generally regarded as the No. 3 free agent in this year's class behind Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, the Nationals sent a fervent signal to the fan base that they're tired of losing and intent on getting better. How much of a price tag can you put on that?

"Yes, it's a long, big contract," Rizzo acknowledged. "But when you're in a position that the Washington Nationals are in, you at times have to pony up for an extra year or some more money to get the player. When you're [competing] with the Red Sox and Yankees and teams that can win instantly, often times you have to better them financially or termwise. We felt comfortable doing that."

It's an understatement to say that Werth's new deal took the lobby of the Disney World Swan and Dolphin hotel by storm. Although Werth's talent and athleticism are undeniable, he turns 32 in May and has only 684 career hits on his résumé. Some scouts and executives wonder how he'll fare outside Philadelphia, where he played in a hitter-friendly park in a loaded lineup alongside Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

One executive for a West Coast team had just picked up his room key when he happened upon a group of front office and media people shooting the breeze in the lobby.

"Did I hear right on the Jayson Werth contract, or was I hallucinating?" the executive said.

For sure, the size and shock value of the deal help substantiate Boras' brilliance as a negotiator. When Werth left the Beverly Hills Sports Council during the season and went shopping for new representation, even he might have had a hard time envisioning something this lucrative.

"We've learned over time never to bet against Scott Boras," said an American League assistant general manager. "Here's instance No. 15 of that, where it seemed illogical that he would get exactly what he was shooting for, but he did. You don't get rich betting against Scott Boras.'"

Boras convinced the Nationals that Werth can be a force in the clubhouse and help sell Washington as a destination for future free agents, while simultaneously giving the Nationals power, speed and excellent defense in right field. He calls it a "Presidential contract," in which a player gives a team performance and leadership in exchange for a megabucks investment.

And here's something else to consider: The Nationals still need a first baseman to replace Adam Dunn, who just signed with the Chicago White Sox, and Boras coincidentally happens to represent a guy named Carlos Pena. Could he soon be joining Werth, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in the Boras-Nationals axis?

"Rizz and I have spent a lot of time together in recent weeks," Boras said with a chuckle. "I imagine we'll be spending some more time together here soon."

For the moment, the only thing we know for sure is that Rizzo and his team aren't done yet. The Nationals are in the market for a starting pitcher or two after coming up short on Jorge De La Rosa, and they've been linked to everyone from Carl Pavano to Brandon Webb to Jeff Francis.

Riggleman said Sunday that Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and the team's new first baseman will hold down the 3-4-5 spots in the batting order, although he's not precisely sure who will hit where. But he loves the team's dynamic new look, with Werth, Zimmerman, Nyjer Morgan and the young double-play combination of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa.

"These guys are athletes who can run and throw," Riggleman said. "They're baseball players. That's what Mike has been trying to get."

The scout in Rizzo thinks Werth has more potential to tap even in his early 30s, because of his injury history and the lack of consistent at-bats before his arrival in Philadelphia.

"He's got the body type and pedigree to play a long time in the major leagues and be an elite player for a long time," Rizzo said.

Seven years' worth? Baseball insiders are naturally skeptical. But it didn't prevent the Nationals from making a $126 million bet on Jayson Werth's future.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.