Picking Splinters: Is Werth Worthy?

I’m torn.

On one hand, the Washington Nationals have finally (finally!) landed a big fish in the free agent market. On the other, the move appears to be as financially prudent (and potentially damaging) as buying day-old sushi.

Ever since the Lerner family was awarded the franchise, they promised they would compete for the premium free agents along with the established big-spenders like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Sunday they delivered by signing right fielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract.

At first glance, Werth is a big score for the Nats. He’s widely regarded as the third-biggest name on the market behind ace Cliff Lee and fleet-footed left fielder Carl Crawford. With a .296 average and 27 home runs in 2010, he instantly joins Ryan Zimmerman as one of the team’s top offensive threats. His ability in the field and strong throwing arm beef up the Nats’ defense.

But best of all, it just feels good. Doesn’t it? The Nationals have been an also-ran in the free-agent derby for several winters. They chased Mark Teixeira, but couldn’t ink him. They swung, but missed, at C.C. Sabathia. And though they’ve pursued Cliff Lee this offseason it seems clear it’s a two horse race between the Yankees and Texas Rangers.

As that last point became clear through various media reports, it seemed like the Nats would miss out yet again. Then came GM Mike Rizzo’s Sunday stunner, signing Werth in a move that set the lobby of the Winter Meetings abuzz.

Now here’s the hitch: It’s that buzz that has me skeptical that this signing was really such a great move. Sure, Werth produced in Philly, but can he produce in Washington on par with those in his pay grade? The deal’s $18 million annual average puts him at the same level as Ichiro, and makes him for the 18th highest-paid player in the majors and the 11th richest hitter. Is Werth really worth that?

There were few, if any outside the Nats’ camp, at Florida’s Winter Meetings who thought so. Some execs were simply outraged that Washington’s spending may have set the free agent market higher than anticipated. Others, like new Mets GM Sandy Alderson, made jokes at the Nats’ expense, insinuating Rizzo and Co. grossly overpaid.

ESPN scouting expert Keith Law, whose opinion I hold in high regard, called the signing “irresponsible.” Law notes that, with Werth at age 31, the Nats are spending top dollar on what figures to be Werth’s post-prime decline phase.

There are other ominous factors as well. Werth’s old home park was a band box. His support in the lineup, with monster mashers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, was far superior to what he’ll receive in Washington. And considering he’s only qualified for the batting title in two of the eight seasons he’s seen service in the majors, there’s always the possibility the past two seasons were aberrations.

I’m taking no solace in Rizzo’s fond memories of Werth from the outfielder’s high school days either. I think most Washington fans remember a certain past GM who had a fondness for collecting players and prospects that pleased him in the past. (See also: Bowden, Jim and Pena, Willy Mo)

So you can see my dilemma. I want to buy in and endorse the move, but common sense – and just about every major league GM outside the Beltway – argues otherwise. Rizzo has said the hefty contract is a result of non-winners needing to play top tier players a premium in free agency. Without the extra cash, the top spenders at the top of the standings will get the prize.

There’s some truth to that, considering free agents usually go to the top bidder. But that said, why not wait until the Nats no longer have to pay that premium? They’ve been patient for this long, rebuilding through the draft and acquiring prospects through a few savvy trades. So why now? Why pull the trigger on Werth after passing on Adam Dunn? Why bind yourself to a questionable long-term pact when ace Stephen Strasburg won’t even pitch next season?

And so I’m worried. I’m worried that Werth won’t pan out and the Nats’ ownership won’t invest when Washington is better positioned to win. I know it’s not my money. But it just feels like there’s a lot more riding on this move than $126 million.