Let’s get this out of the way first: I firmly believe that Jayson Werth’s 7-year, $126M contract is a bad deal for the Washington Nationals. It is an overpay both in dollars and in years, and Werth would need to defy both physics and history to come close to earning his salary.
That said, there is a strain of analysis that says that this is not just a bad contract of the sort that every franchise will, at one time or another give out. Rather this is an epically, unprecedentedly bad contract, a blight on the Nationals’ franchise and an affront to baseball itself. ESPN analyst Keith Law put it this way:
Giving a 32-year-old position player who has qualified for the batting title exactly twice in his major league career a guaranteed seven-year deal for over $100 million isn’t just a bad move.
The full piece is behind ESPN’s Insider paywall, (Well worth the investment, just don’t let them send you the magazine or you’ll never be rid of it.) but it’s such a sterling archetype that I’m going to excerpt a bit more in a few paragraphs. First though, I want to tackle that second sentence. Is this contract irresponsible?
Appointing the “least drunk” guy in the car designated driver is irresponsible. Spending your rent money on lotto tickets is irresponsible. Putting the half-term governor of an obscure state a heartbeat away from the presidency is irresponsible. Overpaying a 31-year old right fielder for his age 32-38 seasons may be ill-advised. It may be flat dumb. But is it irresponsible?
To answer that you’ll have to decide who Rizzo and the Nationals are responsible to. The Werth contract undeniably blew up the free agent market and reset salaries. Do Rizzo and the Lerners owe it to the other 29 clubs not to make bad deals? Hell, no. Free agency is a free-for-all. So Carl Crawford gets a 7-year, $140M contract. How is that the Nationals’ problem? When the Nats embarked on their quixotic bid for Mark Teixeira nobody called the contract he ultimately signed with the Yankees irresponsible. So maybe the Red Sox had to renegotiate Adrian Gonzalez’s extension b00-freakin’-hoo. When another GM starts steering reasonably-priced quality players to the Nationals, then we can talk about mutual responsibility. Of course, another word for mutual responsibility is collusion.
The Nationals are undeniably responsible to their fans. (Note: responsible, not responsive, otherwise this week’s big free agent signing would have been Adam Dunn.) Is the Werth contract irresponsible on that front? On behalf of the fanbase, I’m going to say no. Jayson Werth is a good player. I want good players on my team. As for the length and the amount? Heck, it ain’t my money. Well, it is in some sense, but it’s not like the Lerners’ were going to roll back ticket prices and start handing out half smokes but for this deal. I want the Nationals to be better. Werth makes the Nationals better. As a fan, I’m sold.
Mike Rizzo does have a responsibility to the franchise. He is obligated to use the resources he is given wisely and to put his team in the best position to win. Is signing Werth for 7 years and $126M irresponsible? Ah, now here’s your argument. Let’s go back to Keith Law:
[I]f you as a GM or owner feel the market is forcing you to “overpay” for a free agent because your team isn’t good, maybe you should improve your team first through the draft (where, I should point out, the Nationals spent money and added a lot of talent in 2010) and wait for that supposed free-agent premium to disappear. That is, if free agents don’t want to come to your team because your team stinks, the first solution is to make your team better.
In this view, the Werth contract was irresponsible because that $18M a year could be better used to draft and sign young, cost-controlled players. Splashy free agent signings should be back-burnered until they are the “last piece of the puzzle”, when presumably you won’t have to over-pay to get them. This is a pretty standard sabermetric trope. Expensive free agents are only for teams at the top of the competitive curve. Otherwise they are a waste of resources.
However, even here the Werth signing is only irresponsible if it negatively impacts the Nationals’ ability to acquire and retain good young talent. Will it? It’s impossible for anyone, including Keith Law, to say. $18M certainly is a sizeable chunk of change, but in a $90-100M payroll, where key pieces like Zimmerman, Strasburg, Harper, Ramos, and Zimmermann are locked into reasonably affordable deals for the next few years, it’s hardly crippling.
If the alternative is to consign Ryan Zimmerman to wasting his prime years while the team loads up on prospects that may or may not pan out, to have Ramos and Espinosa develop in a culture of intentional mediocrity, to put the full weight of the franchise of Stephen Strasburg’s surgically-repaired elbow, then a splashy free agent signing or two may just be the responsible move.
There will come a day when the Washington Nationals regret Jayson Werth’s contract, but today is not that day.