Senior Writer

Nats camp report: Werth steps into lead role in D.C.


VIERA, Fla. -- Piercing eyes, bestubbled jaw, longer-by-the-day hair creeping out from beneath the still-strange cap, Jayson Werth already looks close to mid-season form.

Question is, what does he see when he looks into the mirror and the most significant free-agent signing in Washington Nationals history stares back?

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"I'm definitely in a different situation," Werth, 31, was saying quietly after a recent workout, sitting in front of his locker for an extended conversation.

Does he see the gold of the winter's shocking seven-year, $126 million deal?

Does he see a man he still recognizes?

"In Philly, I was considered a complementary player by the media, by everybody," he continued. "Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay.

"Now, here, we've got Ryan Zimmerman, who's a perennial All-Star, Silver Slugger, the face of the franchise. The [other] big-name guys here are just young. Stephen Strasburg is potentially the biggest star in the game, and he's got just a half-season under his belt. We're in a different era, organizationally, than Philly was.

"I'm in a different situation. I'm looked at differently.

"But I haven't changed."

For a large segment of a still-disbelieving public, that's the wrong answer. Because roughly $18 million annually is a lot of dough to bestow upon a man who has yet to meet his first 100 RBI season in the majors (heck, he's had more than 90 RBI just once).

For the Nationals, though, it's the exact right answer. Because they don't want change, they want more of the same.

"The reason he's so attractive to me is that he plays all aspects of the game," said general manager Mike Rizzo, point man in the Nationals' full-court press that netted Werth. "He's a middle-of-the-order hitter. He's a run producer. He scores runs. He drives in runs. He prevents runs. He steals bases when bases need to be stolen. It's not something for the back of the baseball card. He steals bags when his team needs them. And what he brings to the clubhouse and to the dugout. ..."

Fantasy Writer

Breakout ... Jordan Zimmermann: Well before Stephen Strasburg was affiliated with a major-league organization, the future of the Nationals rotation was Zimmermann, and that future appeared on the horizon when he struck out a batter per inning with a 3.18 ERA and 1.24 WHIP over the final eight starts of his rookie season. But then came Tommy John surgery and the months of recovery that follow. By the end of it all, Zimmermann was old news in Washington, which made him practically a ghost in Fantasy. All that potential didn't go anywhere, though, and considering he had the same walk rate in his return last year that he had during his rookie season, he's ready to pick up where he left off. Zimmermann has one of the highest ceilings of all the pitchers you could draft in the late rounds.

Bust ... Ian Desmond: Desmond is yet another example of wishful thinking overtaking physical evidence. Everybody wants to have a high-end shortstop, so when they find one with even the slightest hint of potential, they convince themselves he can fit the bill. But in Fantasy, where only 12 shortstops matter, he doesn't do enough to set himself apart. Yes, he offers some power and some speed, but he'd need to take a big step forward to become more than average in either category. He's still working to catch up to Miguel Tejada and Juan Uribe, much less legitimate middle-rounders, so if you miss out on high-upside players like Stephen Drew and Elvis Andrus, don't reach for Desmond just because he's the next-best thing. You'd be getting a late-round shortstop for a middle-round price.

Sleeper ... Michael Morse: Morse won't get a lot of attention on Draft Day, and rightfully so. He has never been a full-time starter and doesn't project as one now. But after his exile to the minors for the better part of four years, the 28-year-old finally got a second chance in the majors last year and exceeded all expectations in the process. Morse got everyday at-bats from about the time Josh Willingham hurt his knee Aug. 15 and was at his best then, hitting .303 with seven homers and a .930 OPS in 132 at-bats. The Nationals still have their doubts, favoring Roger Bernadina in left field, but neither he nor center fielder Nyjer Morgan has an especially long leash. If Morse winds up getting regular at-bats again, he'll matter in mixed leagues.

-- Scott White
Nationals outlook | Depth Chart | 2011 Draft Prep

No player will have a bigger target on his back this summer. Werth and the Nationals guaranteed that long before his first D.C. photo op was ever scheduled.

On the other hand ... who's to say what a man can do when he steps from the shadows and greets a new morning?

"I may have been considered a complementary player in Philly, but my personality is not one to take a back seat," Werth said. "Last year when Domonic Brown came up, I spent a lot of time with him in the outfield, helping him along.

"It was almost like last year got me ready for this year. I got a taste of it with Domonic."

Now, it's phenom Bryce Harper -- who won't sniff the majors until at least 2012, if not 2013 -- looking for training. It's shortstop Ian Desmond and rookie second baseman Danny Espinosa who could form Washington's middle infield tandem for the next several seasons. The next Rollins-Utley combo? We'll see.

"It's not as far along as when I went to Philly in '07," Werth said. "I went there, looked around and said, 'We're going to win right now. I look around here, and I don't feel it's too far behind that.

"A couple of more years under the belt for Desmond and Espinosa, I think the talent will blossom. And I think we will compete more than people think this year. Look at San Diego last year. It's not impossible."

Veteran Matt Stairs, a Phillies' teammate of Werth's in '08 and '09, says that if anything, Werth is more vocal now. Manager Jim Riggleman, a bench coach in Los Angeles in 2004 when Werth was with the Dodgers, says he's come as advertised.

"When I met with the Lerners [owners of the Nats], I was given a very clear vision of where they were going," Werth said. "Of what they had in mind.

"I'm just one cog ... or whatever those things are called. A sprocket. One sprocket in the big machine. People can say what they want. Everyone has his own opinion. But I feel they got me at a time when they've built up their minor-league system, they've had good drafts and they've got the right pieces in place.

"The transition is from building a franchise to building a winner."

Did he leave even a small piece of himself behind in Philadelphia?

"Not really," he said. "I've pretty much closed the book. I'm starting a new chapter in my life. There are no hard feelings. I'm just really focused on this place, these guys, this organization, on Washington, D.C.

"I'm excited. I really am. I feel we have a situation like we did in Philadelphia. Very similar. When I got to Philly, no one thought we'd win any games. Now, look at the place."

Yes. Look at it. Three consecutive NLCS appearances, one World Series title, currently in the midst of the greatest run in franchise history.

He does not know what it will be like on May 3 when he walks to the plate for his first Citizens Bank Park at-bat since helping build those glory days. No, he's not dwelling on it. But, yes, you'd better believe he's thought about it.

"I know it's coming," he said, smiling. "I know it's going to happen. That's probably something I won't realize what it is until I'm there and I get cheered or booed.

"Hopefully, I'll be welcomed back. We did some awesome things there. I'm really proud of my time there, and of what we were able to do."

He paused, thinking of exactly the right sentiment.

"You move on," he said. "You move on. It's not going to take away from what we did.

"I'll be 60 years old, hopefully, and I'll be back in Philly for World Series alumni stuff. Though my time there is over, it'll never be forgotten."


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