Werth Could Be Tough Sign For Phillies

Friday, February 26, 2010
Posted By admin 03:41 AM

Philadelphia Phillies All-Star Jayson Werth has been in the news a lot this week. For the most part, Werth has attracted attention for reporting to spring training with a Grizzly Adams beard. One Phillies fan, graphic designer and season ticket holder John Blazek, even created a website devoted to the outfielder’s new-look facial hair.

In addition to the beard phenomenon, Werth’s contract status has been a popular topic of discussion down in Clearwater. The 30-year-old right-handed hitter will become a free agent following the season if Philadelphia cannot sign him to an extension before then. The franchise has locked up most of its star core in recent past, but Werth is the one player who should be the most difficult for them to sign given how close he is to free agency. It was interesting, though, to hear his response when asked if he sees himself as comparable to Jason Bay and Matt Holliday, the two top outfielder free agents in this winter’s class. Here were his comments (via Philly.com).

“I think their situation is a little different from mine. I think I’m a season away from something like that. I think I’m really just focused on being part of something special again.”

That comparison stood out to me this week, even more so than the beard. On the surface, one would have to say, no, Werth does not belong in the same category as Bay or Holliday. He has only played in 100 games or more three times to this point of his career, even serving as a part-time player for the Phillies back in 2007. Thus, he clearly lacks the same track record as the other two sluggers. How he performs in 2010 will play a huge factor in what kind of market that he can expect next offseason.

With that said, Werth has the chance to be one of the premier free agent hitters in a deep class. Outside of Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Carl Crawford, in fact, he could be the top position player available if he comes close to replicating his output from 2009. He truly had a breakout last season, batting .268/.373/.506 with 36 home runs, 99 RBIs, and a 128 OPS+ in a career-high 676 plate appearances. According to FanGraphs, his offensive output translated to 27.6 runs above average. The key difference, of course, was simply getting considerable at-bats/playing time.

Even before setting personal bests in most offensive categories in ’09, however, Werth had quietly put together an impressive offensive resume in Philadelphia. He posted well above-league average OPS+ totals—120 and 121 in ’07 and 2008, respectively—in his first two seasons with the club, smacking 27 homers. Overall, he has managed an impressive three-year line of .276/.376/.494 as a Phillie.

While teammates Ryan Howard and Chase Utley rightfully attract the most attention, Werth has quietly emerged as one of the most dangerous offensive threats in a deep lineup. While he is known for crushing left-handing pitching, he is just a fine hitter overall. On top of that, Werth is an excellent defensive right fielder. He has a strong arm and great range. Over the past three seasons, UZR pegs his outfield defense 40.5 runs above average. He has posted the following UZR totals in right field during that time span: 12.2, 14.0, 5.8. While his incredible defensive numbers the first two seasons could be influenced by a small sample size, though, the scouting reports generally agree that he is a plus defender.

When factoring in the output on both sides of the ball, Werth is a tremendous asset. Indeed, based on Wins Above Replacement, he has been more valuable than Bay the past two seasons, producing 10.1 wins compared to Bay’s 6.4. Granted, a lot of the difference comes from defense, but that is still a significant drop off.

Werth got a late start, but he is in the middle of an impressive peak. Since he is so close to being able to cash in, I would imagine he would play the season out and test the waters when able. If he lives up projections—CHONE projects him at 3.1 WAR, which seems pessimistic—he should command as much money as Bay received from the New York Mets. Teams are properly valuing the complete package of a player now, and he should benefit from the newfound emphasis on defense. Plus, while Crawford will certainly be well paid, he is one of the few power-hitting types who will enter free agency. With all of the money locked into its star core, Philadelphia may not have the financial resources left to bring Werth (and his beard) back barring an injury/sudden drop off. If so, I certainly would not blame the player. As much as he says he wants to stay and compete for more titles, he will probably receive more lucrative offers elsewhere because he is truly an elite player.

As far as the beard goes, I still think that Kevin Youkilis' Beard of Truth has Werth beat.