The news was greeted with not much more than a wink and a nod and whispers that once again the Philadelphia Phillies had shopped at a used car lot instead of traveling just up the road to the more customized and higher priced new models. At first glance the signing of Jayson Werth, after two injury plagued seasons in Los Angeles, seemed a strange move, especially when outfielders like Kevin Mench, Geoff Jenkins and Aubrey Huff appeared more ready, willing and able to assist a Phillie pennant cause in 2007.
After all, the critics claimed, Jayson Werth was a player who had not played well in 2005 and not at all in 2006. Certainly there were better outfielders to be had on the open market and the Phils seemed to have more than enough resources to acquire one of them. Yet, a closer look at the 6'4" outfielder from Springfield, Illinois reveals a potential "diamond in the rough", and perhaps exactly what the doctor ordered for a team without the hint of a playoff game in nearly 14 years.
Truth be told, Jayson Werth seemed to have finally escaped the grasp of mediocrity and crossed that invisible line between obscurity and stardom during the Summer of '04 when the Los Angeles Dodgers were the talk of the National League West and the stars were once again shining brightly on those warm, clear Hollywood nights. Led by the yeoman like efforts of third baseman Adrian Beltre, starter Jose Lima and dominating reliever Eric Gagne, the Blue Crew burst out to a substantial lead in the NL West before floundering somewhat after the stunning mid-season trade of catcher Paul Lo Duca to the Florida Marlins for starting pitcher, Brad Penny.
After the deal the team began to fade somewhat and it appeared the hated rivals from the North, the San Francisco Giants, would actually catch and pass the Dodgers at the finishing gate. It was then that a former number one draft pick and failed catcher, put the team on his back and helped carry them to a finishing kick that resulted in the team's first division title in several years. His name was Jayson Werth, and the skills and talent he displayed during that final three month run to the playoffs left an indelible mark on many baseball scouts, many of whom work for the Philadelphia Phillies.
At varying points during that final three month period, Werth played right field or left field, batted as low as sixth and as high as second, hit for power and average, displayed a rocket like arm from the outfield and also had time to show the speed that always made him an anomaly for a player of his size. And this skill did not erode when the regular season ended but carried over into the first round of the playoffs where his two home runs led the Dodgers to their only victory in a four game series with the St. Louis Cardinals.
When the 2004 campaign closed the Dodgers confidently felt they had a star in the making in the then 25 year old Werth. After all, his pedigree suggested his eventual stardom, and his versatility, speed and power seemed all the attributes necessary to project a long and successful career in Tinseltown for the lanky outfielder. His final numbers offered tantalizing hints of much more to come in 2005 and beyond. In a mere 89 games, Werth had clubbed 16 home runs, knocked in 47 runs and scored 56 runs himself.
Oh, there were some hints of the need for a bit more consistency as he did strike out an alarming 85 times and his final .262 batting average suggested he might need to tighten up his strike zone a bit in the future. Yet, to everyone in the Dodger organization, all signs pointed to a definitive go where Jayson Werth was concerned and those go signs were all pointed northward. This was a player clearly on the move.
Then came reality, or rather the first game of spring training in 2005 when an errant fast ball from a pitcher working out his winter kinks struck Werth squarely on the wrist, fracturing it fairly severely. History is replete with players who never recovered from wrist injuries and though Werth did return in late May of '05 to finish the year with the Dodgers, he was clearly not the whirling dervish of the proceeding season. Gone was the power stroke, and in its place was a swing that produced a mere 7 home runs in 102 games and a paltry .234 batting average.
This was followed by a 2006 season spent completely on the disabled list as Werth spent the entire year rehabilitating the wrist in hopes that the Dodgers would remember those magical days in 2004 when Werth carried the team and all was right in the City of Angels. Instead, the Dodgers chose to non-tender him a contract in December, effectively making him a free agent at 27 years of age. While free agency for players like Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee can result in untold riches and fame, players like Werth remain the norm and spend more than enough time hoping the phone will ring with the offer of a major league opportunity.
Fortunately for the outfielder, and possibly for the Philadelphia Phillies, the phone rang quickly in the Werth household this December and it was Pat Gillick with an offer that couldn't be refused...a chance to compete for a starting berth on a team that seemingly was on the verge of a long stretch of playoff appearances. Normal Philadelphia skepticism to the contrary, most veteran baseball scouts look at a team led by youngsters Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers and see a team on the cusp of greatness. Especially, if they can smooth out the rough edges with a hidden gem or two; a hidden gem like Jayson Werth.
It was not that long ago that Jayson Werth was a hot and desired item in the Baseball Amateur draft of 1997. Certainly the names J.D. Drew, Lance Berkman and Troy Glaus brought more name recognition to the table but in Baltimore, where a former Toronto Blue Jay GM whiz was bringing back Oriole glory, all eyes were on an 18 year old catcher playing for Glenwood High. The whiz GM's name was Pat Gillick and the catcher of note was none other than Jayson Werth. When the O's drafted the young catcher with the twenty-second pick in the initial round of the draft they felt they had their future catcher for the next decade.
Werth quickly signed for nearly 900 thousand dollars and went off to Sarasota, Florida to begin his pro career in the Gulf Coast League. His numbers were far from staggering during his early years, but he was progressing and gaining valuable experience as he wove his way from Sarasota to Delmarva  and then on to Frederick in the Carolina League in 1999 and 2000. It was here that he first began to have some offensive success, hitting over .300 the first year there.
Still, the O's were a bit concerned with his development and then stunned the young catcher by trading him to Toronto in 2001. Not surprisingly, this occurred after Gillick had fled Baltimore for Seattle after far too much interference and meddling from hands-on owner Peter Angelos. Gillick insists that he never would have given up on the athletic Werth, a rare breed of player with size, speed and versatility all in one package.
If Werth was stunned by the trade, he tried not to show it and went off to have a solid season in Double-A at Tennessee of the Southern League with 18 home runs and a .285 batting average. Perhaps telling, though not at the time, was that Werth was now spending as much time at first base as he was behind the plate. This not only spoke of his seeming versatility but also perhaps of his lack of defensive skills behind the plate. Clearly, Jayson Werth was reaching a crossroads of his career at age 22.
The 2002 season began in Triple-A at Syracuse and after slugging 18 home runs with 82 RBI to go along with a still low .251 batting average, Werth finally made it to the big leagues with the Blue Jays. Not that anyone noticed however, except for possibly friends and family members. To say that his 2002-03 campaigns in Toronto were less than captivating would not be more than a slight exaggeration of words. In a combined 41 games over two years, he played in 41 games, hit 2 home runs, and recorded a less than auspicious .261 average.
To be sure, these would have been decent enough numbers for a strapping, young catcher but Werth was no longer player catcher, or even first base. By now he was firmly entrenched in the outfield, as much to take advantage of his athletic skill and powerful arm, as it was to get him away from the travails and struggles he was having behind the plate. It did appear that baseball obscurity, thy name was Jayson Werth. Until the following year, 2004, and summer of fun and frolic in Los Angeles that Dodgers fans had not witnessed since the heyday of Tommy Lasorda and Kirk Gibson back in 1988.
The year 2004 looked for all the world like a Dodger Dream Season as the team burst out to a commanding lead in the National League West and for much of the season had the best record in the league. Adrian Beltre was playing like a Most Valuable Player candidate, Shawn Green was performing well in the outfield and Jose Lima seemed to have rediscovered the proverbial Fountain of Youth and was dazzling everyone with not only his right arm, but his crooning voice as a regular contributor of the Star Spangled Banner when the team played at home.
Then came the stunning July deal of catcher Paul Lo Duca, outfielder Juan Encarnacion and pitcher Guillermo Mota to Florida for pitcher Brad Penny and first baseman Hee Seop Choi. Ostensibly the deal was made to bring in a potential ace pitcher in Penny but in reality the deal cut at the very heart of the Dodger team chemistry. Lo Duca was then a Los Angeles mainstay and a valued leader in the clubhouse, while Mota was proving to be a wondrous setup man for the sterling efforts of closer Eric Gagne. Encarnacion was also a regular in the outfield and most baseball analysts scratched their heads and wondered just who would replace Lo Duca and Encarnacion in the Dodgers everyday lineup.
It was here that young Jayson Werth was about to enter the fray, stage left, as in left field. He immediately began to display all the attributes and skills that had enamored him to baseball scouts back when he was a mere teen-ager in Springfield, Illinois. Built like Dave Kingman, and with equal parts speed and power, he began to win over the hearts and minds of an angry LA populace with his wondrous daily performances. There is an old you tube video out there if you can find it of Werth hitting a mammoth home run off Pedro Martinez and the New York Mets in 2005 that speaks of his grace and power potential. It is truly a sight to behold, with the quick compact swing and majestic flight of the ball meeting bat at just the proper moment.
Admittedly, there has not been enough of this majesty during the past two years to warrant Welcome to Philadelphia parades and bands playing Hail to Jayson overtures. Not now and not yet. Still, there remains a sneaking suspicion that Jayson Werth may just prove a very valuable member of the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies and for reasons that have very little to do with those early days when he was seemingly the best high school catcher in the nation.
If this signing works out, and I think it will, then the Phils suddenly have if not a plethora than at least a quartet of solid outfielders to move as chess pieces during the long arduous marathon known as the major league baseball season. Suddenly, all the question marks have a reasonable chance of becoming exclamation marks instead. Left fielder Pat Burrell and his often-ailing foot can get an occasional rest with little decline in power potential when he sits. Werth is also a skilled outfielder that can often replace Burrell in late game situations when the Phils have the lead.
Suddenly, switch-hitting right fielder Shan Victorino has a playmate in right field so he can perform well for 130 games rather than tire out while attempting to perform in 150. Less is often more in the strange world of baseball statistics and a less tired Victorino promised more production, and less chance of injury for the talented speedster.
Equally exciting is the possibility that Aaron Rowand's often thunderous collisions with the outfield fences may result in less damage to the Phillie lineup should he be out for any length of time after his latest foray with an unforgiving wall. Even though Rowand's seeming reckless style of play has not exactly enamored him to a growing sabermetric crowd of Phillie phans, it certainly is well appreciated by his teammates and this style of play in unlikely to change anytime soon.
On those occasions when Rowand is on the mend, and they will occur, Victorino could slide easily to center field while Werth and Burrell flank him in right and left field. This weakens the Phillie defense hardly at all, as Werth is an accomplished and swift outfielder with an arm worthy of his former status behind the plate as a backstop. Jayson Werth also offers a solid right-handed bat off the bench on the days that Burrell, Rowand and Victorino are in the starting lineup and this is something that was often in short supply last summer in PhillieLand.
Make little mistake, the Phils still seem one outfielder short in that nebulous perception of depth but if Werth recaptures the form that made him a budding star in 2004, then one of a trio of candidates, Karim Garcia, Michael Bourn or Chris Roberson may be more than enough to a make the Phillie fly-chasers brigade a crew to be reckoned with.
Interestingly enough, the Phils continue to dangle Rowand in trade talks though the prevailing opinion is that Gillick will not move him unless a Scott Linebrink type reliever is brought back in return. More likely is the possibility that starting pitcher Jon Lieber will be used in any deal the Phils make and depending on who the team receives in return may well determine the ultimate fate of Rowand. Should the Phils bring in a Chris Duncan from the Cards or Geoff Jenkins from the Brewers for Lieber, the Phils may well move Rowand quickly.
If, however, the Phils find outfielders in short supply on the trade market, they will take their chances with a Burrell-Rowand-Victorino troika and hope that Jayson Werth relives his heady Dodger days at the still young age of 28 [in May]. Should this happen, they will likely send the speedy and skilled Bourn back to Ottawa of the International League for more seasoning and hope that a half-season in the minor leagues may well prepare him for the rigors of major league baseball.
Should these events unfold, then it will become a probable battle between Garcia, a left-handed hitter who performed in Japan these past two seasons or Roberson, a switch-hitting Phillie organizational favorite for the fifth outfield job with the team. The speedy Roberson is also likely to be used as trade material should any Jon Lieber talks escalate to a potential two-for-two deal. Rumors have swirled for months a possible Lieber/Roberson for reliever Braden Looper and outfielder Chris Duncan deal and this rumor could be revisited this spring.
In any event, these are indeed heady times in the City of Brotherly Love when it comes to any discussion of their favorite baseball team. The players appear supremely confident that after far too many near misses and close finishes, now is the time to unite and follow the call to arms of a pitching staff that might be the deepest in the National League.
Make no mistake, there are many near givens in regards to likely player performances for 2007. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley will hit, Jimmy Rollins and Aaron Rowand will field and Freddy Garcia, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers will pitch and all should perform in exemplary fashion. Yet, a little noticed announcement on the transaction page of the sports section last December could prove a huge bonus for the team in their fight for the National League Championship this year.
Pat Gillick is fond of tinkering and has proven to be a gambler of the first order, regardless of his undeserved reputation for Standing Pat. His signing of outfielder Jayson Werth to a major league contract could prove either a case of buyer's beware or of genius unfolded, depending on the end result of his performance and health. Still, in the mega dollars world of professional baseball, a one year deal at less than a million dollars a pop seems to me a very...Werth-while risk.
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