A favorite exercise among baseball fans and media is complaining about -- or even merely just pointing out -- high salaries. Specifically, high salaries on players who aren't elite-tier players. "Worst contract" lists are popular. I'm not quite sure why, nor am I looking for a sociological experiment here. I would, however, like to discuss a player who often popped up on those "worst contract" lists (Jayson Werth.) a handful of years ago:
As I sit here, looking back on the completed seven-year deal, I have a hunch it wasn't actually that bad of a deal for the Nationals. Let's work through it and see if my gut feeling is correct.
Heading into his age-32 season in 2011, Werth signed a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals. Again, this deal was mocked for years. Was that fair, though?
What the Nationals were compared to now
The previous three seasons saw the Nationals finishing with 59, 59 and 69 wins, respectively. They were legitimately one of the league's biggest laughingstocks. They had just selected Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with back-to-back No. 1 overall picks, but that alone wasn't turning things around.
The Nationals at the time had been in existence for six years. They finished in last place five times and fourth once, winning 73 games in their fourth-place season. I'm trying hard not to overstate things here, but we all remember how bad the franchise was.
Signing a big-name free agent from a perennial power (as the Phillies were at the time) is a huge move and in this situation, the downtrodden team generally has to "overpay" in order to land the big name.
In Werth's seven years, the Nationals won the NL East four times.
It wasn't just due to his presence, obviously, but the Nationals were a joke before Werth and with him they grew into a (regular-season) powerhouse. This has to count for something, right?
Spending power wasn't limited
One of the major retorts about big contracts is how it handcuffs or even just limits the team from making other big splashes (picture Reds fans when it comes to Joey Votto's deal). We aren't just yelling about the player making too much money, it's what that contract is preventing the team from doing moving forward.
This line of logic doesn't come close to holding up in the case of Werth and the Nationals.
During the course of the Werth deal, the Nationals signed the following deals, among others:
- Max Scherzer; seven years, $210M
- Stephen Strasburg; seven years, $175M
- Gio Gonzalez; seven years, $65M
- Daniel Murphy; three years, $37.5M
- Ryan Zimmerman; six-year, $100M extension
The Nationals had the 22nd-highest payroll in baseball in 2011, Werth's first year with the team. In 2010, their last pre-Werth team, they were 23rd. They were ninth in 2017, the final year of his contract.
The Lerner family ownership group is one of the richest in baseball (it was the top dog for a stretch). Per Forbes, the 2017 Nationals are valued at $1.6 billion with $325 million in revenue and $37.6 million of annual operating income.
Are we worried about the Nationals due to Werth's $126 million over the course of seven years here?
(The correct answer is "no.")
What Werth provided in numbers
Despite all the logic above, people still want to see numbers when they see the big deals.
In seven years for the Nationals, Werth hit .263/.355/.433, good for a 113 OPS+, so in terms of getting on base and hitting for power, he was 13 percent above average. It's OBP-heavy, as .355 is great over a seven-year span, especially for a player in his 30s.
The peak of the deal was 2012-14, when Werth hit .303/.394/.479 (139 OPS+). Injury hampered him in 2012, but in 2013 and 2014, he posted 4.7 and 5.0 WAR (Fangraphs), respectively, which is All-Star level.
Using a formula that involves WAR, Fangraphs calculates how much money a player is worth per season. It had Werth being worth (haha!) $72.4 million in 2013 and 2014 alone. Of course, over the rest of the deal, he wasn't overly valuable. They peg his value over the life of the deal at $97.6 million.
This leaves a shortfall of $28.4 million. We have to accept that Werth was "overpaid" over the life of his deal in light of this.
We don't have to accept that it was egregious, given all the circumstances.
As noted, in order to land a big name in free agency, downtrodden franchises have to overpay. The Werth signing didn't hamper the Nationals in free agency or in locking up their own players in an extension (Zimmerman, Strasburg). Something we can't measure is the overall psyche of the ballclub that's used to being in last place all of a sudden signing a big-name guy to a huge-money deal. Take note of the Nationals being in the bottom third of payroll and all of a sudden they went nuts for this guy. That has to help matters in the clubhouse, even if it's just a little bit and is something we can't measure.
We've seen the completed seven-year deal with Werth in D.C. Knowing everything we know, I'm OK with saying he was a bit overpaid. I'm not OK with acting like this was a terrible contract for the Nationals. In fact, he helped them a lot more than he harmed them. My bet is if the Nationals had to do it over, they'd do the exact same thing. I wouldn't blame them, either.