Paul Hagen: Werth on Phillies, Lee: 'They could have had us both'

Jayson Werth chases down a fly ball during Nationals' spring training in Viera, Fla.
Jayson Werth chases down a fly ball during Nationals' spring training in Viera, Fla.
Posted: February 23, 2011

VIERA, Fla. - Four months removed from his last Phillies at-bat, 150 miles from the pristine white sand beaches and tantalizing restaurants that make Clearwater such a pleasant spring-training encampment, Jayson Werth spent the first day of the rest of his baseball life in a Washington Nationals uniform at the Space Coast Stadium complex.

And it didn't take long for him to be reminded how much has changed, and not just because the 7-year, $126 million contract he signed means he pretty much never has to ask how much things costs.

"Tough to go from first to last place in the division?" was the second, smirking question he was asked yesterday after the Nats' first official full squad workout.

And that's the bottom line, isn't it? Sure, money is great. But it can come with a different kind of price tag. In this case, the most obvious tradeoff is a huge stack of cash for a chance to win and play for sellout crowds every night.

Coincidentally, the introductory news conferences for Werth in Washington and Cliff Lee in Philadelphia occurred hours apart on the same December day. Shortly after that, a hilarious cartoon began circulating on the Internet, an x-rated imagining of a meeting between the former teammates. A sanitized sample:

Lee character, in a tinny robotic voice: Anyway, I have some good news . . . I am going back to Philadelphia.

Werth character: Holy [cow].

Lee: Too bad you signed with one of the [worst] teams in baseball. But it could have been worse. You could have signed with the Pirates or the Mets.

Werth: You are right. But Ruben Amaro Jr. told me they had no money. How can the Phillies afford this? . . . I should have accepted arbitration. How the [heck] did I sign with the Nationals? . . . I was so [confused]. I thought the Nationals just wanted my autograph.

Funny stuff. But it swings and misses on two counts.

First, get real. From all indications, the Nationals deal overwhelmed all other offers, including the one from the Phillies. No matter what happens, this couldn't have been a bad decision. Because under the circumstances there was no other choice he could have made. It was, literally, an offer he couldn't refuse.

"It's really not up to me to say if [the Phillies'] offer was fair or not," he said. "I know it didn't really add up in the end. When you make it to free agency, you can look at it one of two ways. You can look at it as you're a member of the MLB Players Association or you can look at it as you play for a specific team. I was trying to maximize things."

Besides, the fortunes of baseball teams rise and fall. There were those who thought Aaron Rowand was crazy to leave an on-the-cusp Phillies team after the 2007 season to go to the last-place Giants. Three years later, San Francisco won the World Series, eliminating the Phillies on the way to its parade.

The Nationals have a lot of building blocks in place. There are no guarantees, but it wouldn't be shocking to see them become contenders sooner rather than later. And who knows how long the Phillies' window will remain open as the nucleus ages and the long-term contracts now in place could inhibit their ability to address needs?

Look, there's a chance it might not work out. Maybe Werth will miss the electricity that packed stands bring to Citizens Bank Park. Maybe he won't step as easily into the face-of-the-franchise role as the organization expects. Maybe he won't enjoy being the focal point of the lineup along with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

But what the hell? One more time: That's why they play the games.

He insisted that he didn't take any of it personally, that there are no hard feelings, that he understands that it's just a business. But he also remains convinced that if the Phillies had made different decisions along the way, he could be in Clearwater with Lee right now.

"I think if they would have played it right they would have had us both. I mean, they traded Cliff away for prospects [after the 2009 season] and then realized that was probably not what they should have done," Werth said. "They ended up paying him a lot more [5 years, $120 million] than they would have if they'd signed him the year before. Then we would have had him. Chances are if they had signed him before they traded him, it probably would have made it a little easier to sign me."

Once he heard that the Phillies were pursuing Lee as a free agent this winter, he concluded he wasn't coming back.

"At that point, I kind of felt it was going to be one or the other. When it wasn't me, and what they were talking to me about in terms of years, it kind of made it seem like they were playing us against each other a little bit," he said. "That's the name of the game. That's the business of it. You miss on one, you get on the other. That's how they played it. Unfortunately, I think if they'd played it right, they probably could have had us both."

Instead, he's with the Nationals. He said he'll miss his former teammates. He said he's following the saga of who will replace him in right, that Ben Francisco should get more credit, that as talented as Domonic Brown is it's difficult to make an immediate impact in the big leagues. That's about it.

Sometimes ya just do what ya gotta do. *

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com

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