WASHINGTON — When Jayson Werth signed his stunning, seven-year free agent deal with the Nationals in the offseason prior to the 2011 campaign, he established credibility among free agents for a franchise that had lacked it up until that juncture. Just as importantly, though, he instantly became the veteran leader the roster.
While that mantle has been passed — or, rather, wrested away with brute force — Werth remains a vital cog in the Nationals’ machine, and a piece they are more reliant upon than many fans probably realize.
Since their grizzled outfielder moved down I-95 from Philadelphia more than four years ago, the Nationals have gone 297-229 (.565) with Werth in the starting lineup and 85-75 (.531) without him. That may not seem like a huge spread, but over the course of a full season, it’s the difference between a 91-win pace and an 86-win pace. Consider that since the introduction of the second Wild Card in 2012, 23 of 24 teams to win at least 91 games made the postseason, while no team with fewer than 88 wins has played into October during that stretch.
Werth hasn’t established career highs in any notable category as a National, but he’s logged a pair of Top 20 MVP finishes the past two seasons. Since joining the club, Werth’s .370 on-base percentage is the 16th best in baseball of any player with at least 2,000 plate appearances.
One of the smartest baserunners in the game, he doesn’t steal much anymore (no attempts so far this year) but still holds the second-highest success rate of all time in the Major Leagues, trailing only his former teammate, Chase Utley.
But perhaps Werth’s most vital attribute is his patience. He has finished in the top seven in the league each of the past four seasons in pitches per plate appearance, averaging 4.33 P/PA in Washington. That approach appears to have worn off on his foremost protégé, Bryce Harper, whose 4.38 mark is third-best in the game this season.
Werth will be replaced on the roster by Wilmer Difo, a curious choice. The middle infielder had a terrific 2014 campaign, and has backed it up thus far this season. But the 23-year-old has played just 14 games above A ball and is, again, an infielder, not an outfielder. Washington still has five players listed as outfielders on the active roster, but Tyler Moore (-1.6 career dWAR) and Clint Robinson (-0.2) don’t provide any real depth defensively.
The reticence to call on either Matt Den Dekker or Brian Goodwin, both outfielders available on the 40-man roster, speaks to the organization’s feelings about those players’ abilities at the big league level. Any of the three would provide a left-handed bat, but although Difo is a switch-hitter, he’s much better right-handed.
Anthony Rendon’s eventual return will likely signal the end to a short stint for Difo. Rendon arrived at Nationals extended spring training Thursday as he continues to make his way back from a series of setbacks that have cost him the entire season to this point. And the Nats will certainly welcome Rendon back with open arms, as Danny Espinosa and Denard Span are unlikely to continue to produce at career rates, nor Harper to maintain the 12th-best offensive season in baseball history.
But for the Nationals to be the team many hoped and expected them to be, they need their selective, patient, elder statesman back in the lineup.
(All statistics current through Mon. 5/18)