If you weren't shocked by Washington's surprise signing of Jayson Werth last Sunday, then you probably are an inner-circle member of the Washington Nationals franchise.
While many analysts (including some THT regulars) speculated that the Nationals would put forth every effort to land one of the elite free agents on the market, few saw Werth as that target.
Among free agents, the most obvious fit for the Nationals is Cliff Lee. Washington may possess the largest stable of major league-capable starting pitching, but they sorely lack above-average talent in that group. Adding Lee to the rehabbing Stephen Strasburg would constitute a duo of aces capable of pairing off against any roster for the foreseeable future. Jordan Zimmermann and a pair of back-end candidates like John Lannan and Ross Detwiler round out what could be an able-bodied rotation. In the outfield, the equally gifted—but younger—Carl Crawford would appear to be a better fit, as the Nationals' playoff window doesn't appear as though it will open until 2012, at the earliest.
One may wonder why the Nationals haven't attempted to blow either of these free agent parties out of the water, the way they did with Werth. The simplest and most likely explanation is that the front office saw an opportunity to acquire a worthwhile target and decided to leave nothing to chance. Impressing players with contract demands as high as Crawford and Lee might not be possible anyway.
More may wonder, why now? As THT's Jeff Gross pointed out, guys like Grady Sizemore, Carlos Beltran, and Nick Swisher will all be available in future off-seasons, when the Nationals are closer to being playoff-ready. That trio has some significant warts compared to Jayson Werth, but there will ostensibly be other elite outfield, rotation or first base performers on the market in the future. Surely they could have saved some shekels by acting a year or two down the line.
Yet, it is quite possible that the Nationals are looking to a rival for their inspiration. Werth's former employer, the Philadelphia Phillies, are not long-removed from a run of futility comparable to the current struggles of the Nationals. From 1995 through 2000, the Phillies failed to produce a winning record, finishing last in the division three times. Fan support quickly eroded—to the point where Veterans Stadium was so empty that it practically echoed.
As the Nationals can attest, if there is one nice thing about finishing in the dregs of the league, it's the early draft picks. The Phillies were able to combine some early picks and good scouting to add talents like Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard to the farm system. Following an 80-81 season in 2002, and with the opening of Citizen's Bank Park due in 2004, the Phillies decided to become big players in the off-season market, signing Jim Thome to a six-year, $85 million contract, and trading for starter Kevin Millwood.
The offseason activity spiked fan support, contributing to increased revenues that made it possible to continually invest in the major league roster. For casual fans, the first fruits came in 2007, when a scrappy Phillies roster outlasted the crumbling New York Mets, only to run into a Colorado Rockies franchise that had (temporarily) forgotten how to lose. The man who jumped started the Phillies' virtuous cycle, Jim Thome, was already a fading memory. Since then, the Phillies have the honor of being the only franchise to reach the last four postseasons and are poised to repeat yet again with a talented—but ever more pricey—roster.
The Nationals have some parallels to that 2003 Phillies team—a beautiful new ballpark, a large but uninterested market and a few MVP-caliber prospects. With Werth, the Nationals have taken the next step, they've acquired their Thome. Now, having made the initial investment they must remain active in the coming months and years, methodically building on the excitement of the fans, turning it into a financial juggernaut. The Werth contract may not make sense on the surface, but his signing is the opening salvo of a long and difficult road to sustained relevance. A few years down the line, we may be able to look back and say that this was when the Nationals woke up.
A long journey still awaits. The Phillies were able to continue to develop enough well-regarded young talent to make frequent dips into the July trade market, hemorrhaging prospects to add Joe Blanton, Lee and Roy Oswalt. Off-season acquisitions like Roy Halladay, Raul Ibanez, and Placido Polanco further bolstered the roster. The Phillies even received crucial performances from such former scrapheap players as Shane Victorino (a Rule V pick the Dodgers declined to take back when the Phillies demoted him) and—Jayson Werth.
Still, if the Nationals truly are trying to follow the model demonstrated by the Phillies, they have their work cut out for them.
Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.