Stick around baseball long enough and you’re bound to hear something new every once in a while. That is the beauty of it, after all. Nothing stays the same, which is good because it chases away the boredom. Still, it was a remarkable thing to hear some of things Roy Halladay said just about a year ago.
“This is where we wanted to be,” Halladay said during last December’s introductory press conference at Citizens Bank Park. “It was an easy decision for me.”
Halladay just didn’t say it that one time either. Oh yes, the big right-hander made it point to drive home his point that more than anywhere else, he wanted to be in Philadelphia.
My, how far we have come.
“He did say that his was the place where he wanted to be,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. pointed out the day the Halladay trade went down. “A player of his caliber saying that? I’m not sure [if that’s happened].”
Remember how it used to be, though? Ballplayers used to go out of their way to avoid our fair city. Some even had it written into their contracts that they could be traded anywhere in the world as long as it wasn’t to Philadelphia. Then there was J.D. Drew and Scott Rolen, for whatever reasons, needed to play anywhere else. In fact, with Rolen it was turned into something personal instead of what it really was…
He was sick of losing.
But even Rolen admitted that in order for the Phillies to get to the level they enjoy now where players like Roy Halladay beg to be sent here, he was the one who had to go. See, before the 2002 season then general manager Ed Wade reportedly offered Rolen a deal that he would still be playing out. Oh sure, with Rolen at third base and healthy, the Phillies never would have had David Bell, Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez, Pedro Feliz or Placido Polanco. Chances are they would be trying to find someone take the last few years of the 10-year, $140 million that was said to be offered.
See, it was OK that the Phillies had a veritable revolving door at third base because that meant players had changed their minds about going to Philadelphia. Plus, 10-year contract aside, if Rolen had taken the deal, he said.
“If I would have stayed there, there was no way they would have gotten Thome,” Rolen told me during a conversation at old Yankee Stadium in 2003. “They might have been able to get [Kevin] Millwood, but there's no way they would have been able to have Thome and me on the same team.”
Jim Thome was the linchpin. Without Thome there is no Cliff Lee or Pedro Martinez. Without Cliff Lee there is no Roy Halladay. Without Rolen, Bobby Abreu and those not-quite-ready ball players, the Phillies don’t get the draft picks for Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell or Ryan Howard.
Still, it was Thome who made all the difference… Thome and that crazy six-year deal worth $85 million that just came off the books last year.
“We needed to do something at the time,” Rollins said. “He brought excitement back to Philly baseball.”
More than that, Thome was the secret to the formula. Getting the future Hall of Famer to agree to a six-year deal even though he would have preferred to stay in Cleveland sent a message to the rest of baseball that the Phillies were serious about being serious. Sure, it might have been the best contract, but that $85 million looks pretty cheap these days.
“At that point he was the most-coveted and the best player during the off-season and we really made a push to get him to Philadelphia,” Amaro said last December. “I really believe, honestly, that put us over the hump.”
Yes, getting that one player can have a trickle-down effect. It’s like a snowball that rolls downhill and turns into a runaway behemoth by the time it gets to the bottom.
“He came at kind of the right time for all our kids," Amaro said. “The Rollinses and Utleys and those guys weren’t quite coming into their prime and we’re fortunate to have those guys, with Ryan Howard, step up and come into their own. … All those guys didn’t get to their primes until after Jimmy was gone, but he certainly helped legitimize what we were trying to do.”
So is that what the Washington Nationals are attempting to do with Jayson Werth? No doubt the seven years and $126 million makes the Thome deal look like tip money, but is Werth the kind of guy a team uses to draw the others to town?
That is the $126 million question.
Let’s get it out of the way right here… Jayson Werth is no Jim Thome. Not even close. Sure, Werth is popular with the stat geeks and is certainly a better fielder than Thome was, but as far as the whole package goes, no, not in the same ballpark. Thome is revered by teammates, coaches and the press. He is a leader whose words carry weight in the clubhouse. Werth is an acquired taste. Sure, he’s a tireless worker and has a lot of friends in the clubhouse, but in certain circles he can be merely tolerated.
“He’ll be a centerpiece of our ballclub on the field and in the clubhouse,” Nats GM Mike Rizzo said to The Washington Post. “It kind of exemplifies Phase 2 of the Washington Nationals’ process. Phase 1 was a scouting-and-player development, build-the-farm-system type of program. We feel that we’re well on our way of doing that. We feel that now, it's the time to go to this second phase and really compete for division titles and championships.”
Rizzo isn’t laying out an unfamiliar program. In fact, it is the program to build a winning team. It’s the same one the Phillies relied on many times in their history, like when they got Thome or Pete Rose before the 1979 season. Not only were they deals that resonated in terms of the finances (Rose got $3.2 million for four years), but they changed the way everyone saw the franchise.
They changed the culture of the organization.
Werth is doing that in Washington, but he’s not going to be able to do it all by himself. Ryan Zimmerman will be by Werth’s side until at least 2013, and ace of the future Stephen Strasburg should be recovered from Tommy John surgery in time for the 2012 season. The ETA on last summer’s top pick of the draft, Bryce Harper, could be 2012, too. But there are still many question marks that go with prospects. If Werth is going to be what the Nats expect, the Lerner family (owners of the club) need to spend some more cash.
Werth’s close friend Cliff Lee would be a good place to start.
“I think in a short time, we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Werth told The Washington Post. “I’ve been given a lot of assurance by the Lerner family and by Mike that we’re going to go after some guys that are going to make a difference, that are going to put this team where it needs to be. . . . I came here to win.”
Hey, maybe Werth is the man to build a club around. Why not? He's a young 31, a former first-round pick who has been to the top of the game with the Phillies and nearly quit a few years ago when he was unsure if his injuries would clear up. He's from a baseball family in which his grandfather and uncle spent a combined 33 years in the majors, and his dad played 11 pro seasons with a cup of coffee with the Yankees and Royals in the early 1980s. Yes, Werth has a baseball education, but can he pass it on?
Give Rizzo, the Lerners and the Nats credit for taking big risks. After all, there is a chance Strasburg never comes back at all and playing in a city that is rather ambivalent about its third crack at a big league franchise, the future of the team very well could be on the precipice.
Think about it… Washington is a two-time loser in baseball, yet when the Expos where no longer right for Montreal, MLB insisted on giving the city a third shot. Worse, they stuck it to the overburdened taxpayers of D.C. and forced them to build a ballpark that no one goes to. So yes, there is plenty of culture to change for Werth and his young sidekicks.
The future of the team could depend on it because Washington could be a three-time loser with baseball with a guarantee that there will not be a fourth chance.