The brass ring is at his fingertips

Jayson Werth , airborne after his game-winner against the Nationals, wants a long-term deal.
Jayson Werth , airborne after his game-winner against the Nationals, wants a long-term deal.
Posted: October 03, 2010

ATLANTA - In February, Charlie Manuel spotted his rightfielder on a back field at the Phillies' spring training complex in Clearwater, Fla. He summoned Jayson Werth, and the first conversation of what is likely their last season together began like this:

"How do you feel?" Manuel asked Werth.

Werth, standing in the visitors' dugout at Turner Field a few days ago, recalled the chat. He did his best Manuel impersonation, emphasis on "feel."

"I could tell he didn't mean, How do I feel physically?" Werth said. "He was talking about, How do I feel about my situation?"

Werth stroked his beard and laughed.

These could be Werth's final days as a Phillie - or not. Maybe the two sides will find a way to make the money work, find a way to keep the band together and live happily ever after.

That is unlikely. Werth will be one of the premier names on the free-agent market this off-season. The two sides appear headed for an amicable divorce, a circumstance of Werth's precipitous rise, an unexpected situation for which the Phillies did not plan after doling out sizeable contracts the previous three years.

Werth wants a lucrative long-term deal because this, in all likelihood, is his one chance for it.

"He deserves every bit of what he's going to get," teammate and friend Shane Victorino said. "He's come a long way."

Victorino, who met Werth while they were in the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system in 2004, still remembers the text messages sent two years later when Werth doubted his future in baseball. A misdiagnosed and mysterious wrist injury kept Werth out, and he thought his career was over.

Now, here was Manuel's inquiry at the beginning of spring training - the first time someone other than a family member had talked to Werth about his impending free agency, a scenario so improbable for the 31-year-old outfielder even just a couple of years ago.

The conversation lasted 20 seconds. It was as meaningful as any Werth said he's had with Manuel. Though he knew the intent of his manager's question, Werth responded cryptically.

"Good," he said. Manuel caught on.

"I feel like," Manuel said, "you're in a position of power."

Werth liked the idea.

"I already felt that."

This story has been told, but it bears repeating: After the Los Angeles Dodgers declined to offer Werth a contract minutes before a midnight deadline in December 2006, he stayed awake, consumed with the uncertainty that lay ahead.

Finally, he fell asleep on his family-room couch only to wake up to a phone call from Pat Gillick, then the Phillies' general manager, seven hours later.

"From that moment to this moment," Werth said recently, "a lot has changed."

Werth will finish 2010 with career highs (over a full season) in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored, hits, and doubles. Raul Ibanez and Werth were the only two regulars who didn't go on the disabled list.

That's remarkable, simply because Werth's career before becoming a Phillie was defined by his injuries. In his second spring at-bat of 2005, an A.J. Burnett fastball drilled his left wrist, causing a serious injury that was misdiagnosed and finally corrected more than a year later. It essentially cost him two years of baseball and constant doubting.

Each season in Philadelphia, Werth has been an integral contributor on winning teams. He may not have been more valuable than in 2010, considering everything going on around him.

Werth began the season as perhaps the hottest hitter in the National League. On May 10, he was batting .348 with a 1.112 OPS in his first 32 games. Fans unfurled "Sign Werth" banners over a wall beyond center field at Citizens Bank Park. His cause became a rallying point.

In his next 56 games, he hit .235 with a .728 OPS. Werth came under fire from fans - and his manager - saying the contract was on his mind and affecting his performance. He remains dead last in the majors with a .186 batting average with runners in scoring position among players with at least 150 plate appearances.

"That's the one thing that really sticks out," Werth said. "There was definitely a time where I felt like I was trying to do too much. I was putting too much pressure on myself. Is that a product of the situation I'm in? It's kind of an obvious one. It's not something I look at and say it's 100 percent the reason why. But obviously, I've played my whole life for this."

Werth has said that again and again. If he leaves, there will be those who criticize him for taking the money and leaving a situation he calls "perfect." That, those around him say, is to be expected.

"There are times in this game where you have no alternative but to be selfish," said Davey Lopes, the Phillies' first base coach and a Werth mentor. "It's just that you don't let the selfishness get in the way of a team goal. Anybody that's played this game and can look me in the eye and say they've never been selfish in their career, I would more than likely call them a liar."

Here's a story about the beard: Victorino was hardly surprised when Werth arrived at spring training with the facial hair. Victorino said he has photos of Werth from past off-seasons that are much worse.

But then Werth kept the beard and Victorino started to wonder. OK, so it wasn't the full thick beard he came to Clearwater with, but for the majority of the season, Werth has stuck with the scruffy look.

"Look at this guy," Victorino remembers thinking, "he's a . . . mess."

The fans loved it. Werth became the beard. Quickly, it evolved into an Internet sensation. T-shirts were created to idolize the beard. Fans wore stick-on beards to games. Women bemoaned it. Men tried to imitate it.

"It's not because he wanted attention," Victorino said. "It was just what he wanted to do."

Werth said he kept the look mainly because it was comfortable. ("Shaving. I don't like to shave. Never have.") But there was that other reason.

"After we got beat in the World Series, having won the year before and being that close, you could almost taste it," Werth said. "We got beat by the Yankees. My stepdad played for the Yankees. I grew up with pinstripes in the house. But I was never really a Yankee fan. The Yankees have that clean-shaven rule."

Werth grew the beard to spite the Yankees?

"I don't want to say that's the main reason why," he said. "I usually grow a beard in the off-season. But there was a side of all that, on some level, it had something to do with it."

It was a driving force, Werth said, behind his off-season workouts.

"You look in the mirror and you know why you're getting out of bed," he said. "You know what you have to do that day. You know why. I don't want to get beat again. I don't want to be in that situation. That was a silent, daily reminder."

Werth has a reserved personality, and that's what makes his impending free agency a confluence of conflicting forces. This off-season, Werth will assume a public position he has never achieved. Teams will bargain for his services. His agent, Scott Boras, perhaps the most well-known in all of sports, will campaign for his client.

Werth hopes to keep a low profile.

"Why is that? It's the way I've always been," he said. "But I don't have a problem being part of a team."

No, no one has ever said that. But Werth can be coarse. There was the time in July when he ran into the right-field corner at Citizens Bank Park to catch a foul ball, but a fan reached over and interfered. Werth cursed out the fan, whose young son was with him. Werth said he felt bad about the situation but never apologized.

He was the subject of trade rumors near the July 31 deadline, when the Phillies contemplated breaking up the core to spark an offense that was maddeningly inconsistent. That never happened.

He rarely wants to talk about himself. Earlier in the season, a reporter for Sports Illustrated showed up to do a story on Werth. For a week, Werth avoided the writer before relenting - barely.

Often, he is not one of the team's spokesmen. He doesn't want to be one of them.

"I don't like to talk about myself because this is a team game," Werth said recently. "This is about an organization, not one player. You hit a walk-off homer or you do something big, I expect to talk about it after the game. But much past that, one thing I've learned playing for the Phillies, talk is cheap. We have guys who talk. We have guys who don't talk. . . . I feel like sometimes you can only get yourself in trouble by talking."

In Philadelphia, Werth doesn't have to talk. If he signs a huge multiyear deal elsewhere, there will be more expectations. But for now, Werth chooses not to speak, most of the time. In Philadelphia, he is but one part of a core of players who could become a dynasty this fall. The Phillies took a chance on Werth, and he grew into a star without having to be a star.

"It's the environment he's come under," Lopes said. "It allows you to flourish. It has helped a lot, as it has for everyone else. It might allow you to sneak in the back door a little bit."

As the Phillies handed extensions to Victorino, Joe Blanton, and Carlos Ruiz this off-season and talks between Werth and the Phillies were limited, their choice was clear. Werth would be going to free agency.

"He never complained," Victorino said. "He never sat there and said, 'Why me?' That's not Jayson."

Still, he did wonder about the whole thing. It caught him off-guard and all of a sudden, he acknowledged he was in a situation he did not anticipate.

"I was unprepared for what I was going through this season," Werth said. "I was expecting to get an extension at some point and when that didn't happen, I suddenly was at a place where things were a little unknown. That was one of the main reasons why I hired Scott Boras. I feel like since meeting with him and discussing what's going on, I have peace of mind. I now feel prepared. I now know where I'm going."

Of course, hiring Boras furthered the notion of a separation from Philadelphia. Werth emphasized the move wasn't his "final ticket out of town."

A divorce would be difficult. Werth has been good to Philadelphia, and for the most part, the city has returned the favor.

"The fans have responded," Werth said. "They cheer you. They boo you. They want you locked up. They want you traded. They want it all. I've got them all covered this season, I think. It's been a lot of fun."

Charlie Manuel was right. Werth is in a position of power, when so many times before, that was merely a dream. Now, he controls what happens next.

"I can't wait," Werth said, "to see how it ends up."

Contact staff writer Matt Gelb

at 215-854-2928 or Follow on Twitter @magelb.

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