Werth's departure Nat a surprise for Phillies

Jayson Werth's departure from the Phillies was considered a foregone conclusion by many. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Jayson Werth's departure from the Phillies was considered a foregone conclusion by many. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer) (Andrew O'Brien)
Posted: December 06, 2010

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Not long after the Phillies had been eliminated from the postseason by the soon-to-be-champion Giants, a man in a business suit approached Jayson Werth outside a conference room at Citizens Bank Park.

The man, an upper-level member of the organization's business department, extended a hand and spent a few moments extolling the rightfielder's career with the club. It's been a pleasure watching you play the last few years, he said, watching you perform, watching you develop, watching you thrive. And, he continued, best of luck in whatever happens next.

This was not an executive with any sort of say in personnel matters, nor with a front-row seat to the types of negotiations that occur when a player such as Werth reaches free agency.

But the exchange was indicative of the mood inside the organization when it came to re-signing the blossoming rightfielder: Say your goodbyes while you can.

The good news, then, is that the end-result of yesterday's developments - Werth, in case you have not heard, agreed to a 7-year, $126 million contract with the Washington Nationals - did not catch the Phillies by surprise. Long ago, the front office decided that it would not be able to come close to the type of deal Werth was seeking. And so the Phillies have spent the past several months preparing to fill the gaping void that now exists in that all-important slot behind Ryan Howard in the batting order.

The bad news? No amount of preparation can make up for the production the Phillies lost when Werth chose to take his talents to the Beltway. Over the last 3 years, Werth hit .279 and averaged 29 home runs, 84 RBI, 92 runs and 18 stolen bases while posting an .889 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).

Werth struggled with runners in scoring position last season, hitting just .186 (although posting a .353 on-base percentage) and striking out once every 3.3 at-bats (compared with once every 3.8 at-bats overall), facts general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. pointed out publicly. But Werth's track record points to a 1-year hiccup rather than a worrisome flaw: In 2009, he hit .279 with a .918 OPS with runners in scoring position, and in 2008 he hit .274 with an .837 OPS.

Of course, the Phillies do not need to make excuses for deciding against doling out one of the richest contracts in the sport. According to sources with knowledge of the talks, the Phillies offered a contract similar in average annual value to the 4-year, $66 million deal Jason Bay signed with the Mets last offseason. But they did not want to go beyond 4 years. The Nationals, meanwhile, swooped in with an offer that is the richest in their franchise's history.

"Surprised? Not necessarily," Amaro said yesterday. "I think the length was a little surprising but again, it only takes one team to have that interest. And obviously it was important to the Nats that they add that kind of a bat, especially after having lost Adam Dunn. But again, I'm glad for Jayson as a person. I think it's great. It's part of the process and we'll have to move on."

Amaro said the Phillies made an offer 2 weeks ago to Werth that he termed "significant."

"We had an idea of what we felt we would be comfortable with as far as a contract offer is concerned . . . Clearly at the end of the day, it was about him trying to get the best contract he could. And I think he did."

The Phillies will need to find a way to balance a lineup that will enter 2011 without its most powerful righthanded hitter. The strategy seems to rest heavily on the expected internal improvement by a lineup that was ravaged by injury and subpar performance last season. Combined with additions to the rotation, which will have Roy Oswalt for an entire season, and the bullpen, which figures to be the chief recipient of the team's disposable free-agent dollars, the Phillies could be as talented on paper as they were at the start of last season. That, at least, is the thinking.

The great unknown is who will replace Werth: not only in rightfield, where he developed into a strong defender, but at the fifth spot in the order, where his righthanded power bat broke up a heart of the order that features lefties Chase Utley, Howard and Raul Ibanez.

Near the top of the list of potential replacements is Ben Francisco, who has spent the last year and a half serving in spot duty off the bench. Since joining the team in the Cliff Lee trade in July 2009, he has hit .272 with a .323 on-base percentage, .794 OPS, 11 home runs, 41 RBI and nine stolen bases in just 301 plate appearances. Last season, Francisco hit .284 with a .901 OPS and six home runs in 96 plate appearances against lefthanded pitching. Combine him with rookie lefthanded hitter Domonic Brown or veteran reserve Ross Gload and you could have a platoon situation.

Brown, the organization's top position prospect, will compete for a big-league roster spot in spring training. He hit .327 with 20 home runs and 17 stolen bases and a .980 OPS at Double A Reading and Triple A Lehigh Valley last season before finishing the season on the major league roster, where he hit .210 with two home runs and 24 strikeouts in 64 at-bats. Brown was supposed to play winter ball for Escogido in the Dominican Republic until Christmas, but struggled in his first couple of weeks and late last week left the club because of fatigue.

"We could have our righthand bat on our club right now," Amaro said yesterday. "I've said this a few times already. We could have our rightfielder within our organization. We'll still have to continue to assess that and see if in fact that's the route we want to take. But frankly, I'm going to have to find somebody who I think is going to be worth making a move on based on what we think about Ben Francisco and possibly Dom Brown. We still haven't made any final decisions on who our rightfielder is going to be. But there's one guy out of the mix now and we have to decide which way we want to go.''

There are several external options, including free-agent righthanded hitters Matt Diaz and Jeff Francoeur.

Really, not much has changed, save for the expected becoming reality. But a lot will change before Opening Day. *

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese. Follow him on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/HighCheese.

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