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Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Jayson Werth's new responsibility

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

VIERA, Fla. -- His first name is still Jayson. His last name is still Werth. But in between, the new right fielder for those upwardly mobile Washington Nationals now has a new middle name -- four of them, actually.

As in: Jayson Seven Years $126 Million Werth.

Yes, you can't walk away from the price you pay -- not in this crazy, sticker-shocked world. So there isn't a walking trail in America that will ever again enable Jayson Werth to hike away from the largest contract in the history of his new employer.

And that, he says, is fine. Goes with the high-rent territory.

But there's a question that also goes with that territory, which he and his team find themselves reflecting on this spring. And it goes kinda like this:

What does it truly mean to live up to a contract this momentous?

Here's a guess that the answer probably isn't what you think it is.

Werth
The moment Jayson Werth signed that big contract and agreed to wear a Nationals jersey, everything changed.

That's because this isn't going to be about the numbers you'll be perusing on your favorite Jayson Werth stats page during the next seven years. Not really. Not that you'll hear the Nationals complain if he hits about 300 home runs between now and 2017, of course. But this is bigger than that, or any, stat.

This, friends, is about responsibility.

There's a sense of responsibility that goes with a contract like this, and it extends way beyond any number on the stat sheet. And extends way beyond a guy showing up at home plate four times a night. And even stretches, in a sense, beyond anything that meets the casual eye.

You can define that responsibility a million different ways. But it's really this simple:

It's time for Jayson Werth to be The Man.

And not just ON the field.

But how does a player like this become The Man, at age 32, as he steps onto the big stage with a team that has never even had a winning season? Here's how his general manager and manager answer that question.

"There IS a certain sense of responsibility that goes along with the contract," says Mike Rizzo, the general manager who signed him to that deal. "I think he has a responsibility to his teammates, and to do things the right way, and to be an example of how we want to play the game, and how we want to conduct ourselves, between the white lines and in the clubhouse and in the community. And so far, he's living up to it."

"I've talked to Jayson about this," says his manager, Jim Riggleman. "I told him, 'I will evaluate you on effort, because all eyes are going to be on you.' …

"He's got to answer to his teammates. The responsibility that comes along with that contract is, you've got to walk in that clubhouse every day, and your teammates have to respect you. And one thing about ballplayers: If you play hard, your teammates WILL respect you."

In truth, though, it won't be that simple. It can't be that simple. Maybe in his manager's eyes, how this man responds to the expectations this contract heaps upon him may just come down to effort. But fans will have other ideas. And the people around baseball who thought the Nationals overpaid? They'll have other ideas.

And how does Werth himself look at what he needs to do to rise up to meet the responsibilities of a contract this large? He's still trying to define that in his own way.

"I don't fully understand the answer to that question yet," he says. "I think a little time still needs to go on. I'm really still kind of feeling things out, learning my teammates and coaches and staff. And I think vice versa. There's still a little more of a comfort level that I think needs to be reached before I can fully understand how to answer that question.

"There's obviously a responsibility. There's a lot to think about. But the bottom line is, the game hasn't changed. I haven't changed. The guys I'm playing against -- they haven't changed. So in that sense, there is a greater responsibility when a team or an ownership decides they want to make an investment in you. But what is that responsibility exactly? I'm not really sure. …

"But I think," he says, finally, "that maybe the way that I'm perceived, maybe by everybody else, that's probably what's changed the most."

Well, he's right about that. Until three years ago, in large part because of complications from a broken wrist, Werth had never even played more than 102 games in a season. Until two years ago, he'd never even played regularly enough to get to the batter's box 500 times in any year. Until last year, he'd never even spent as many as 90 games sitting in the middle of anybody's lineup card.

And now he's a $126 million man.

So no wonder he's got more to digest than Takeru Kobayashi. For the past four years, Jayson Werth has played baseball in the shadows of a star-studded cast in Philadelphia. Now it's his time to step out of those shadows, into a light that won't stop shining 'til the paychecks stop coming.

There will be no Chase Utley, no Ryan Howard, no Jimmy Rollins around him in D.C. to suck up all the pressures, to deflect the heat torches. But that also means there's an opportunity now for this man -- to prove he's a star on their level and, more importantly, to elevate HIS new teammates the way those guys once helped elevate him.

"I think that's a byproduct," Werth says, "of signing the contract I signed and taking on the team I'm taking on, being part of an organization that's different from the one I'm coming from. I definitely welcome that. I think it's a great opportunity. I think I'm in a situation similar to the one when I went to Philadelphia in '07."

Jayson Werth
Jayson Werth, in his new role as The Man, must set an example.

When he got to Philadelphia, he was joining a team that had won one World Series in the history of the franchise, and the stars around him were beginning to rise. Now he joins a club in D.C. where the guys around him have never won. And to find the last time a team in his new town played a postseason game, you have to ride the Wayback Machine all the way to the first term of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration -- 78 years and THREE FRANCHISES ago.

So if Werth wants to play the lead in a Washington remake of The Philadelphia Story while everybody waits around for Bryce Harper to show up and Stephen Strasburg's elbow ligament to heal, that's cool with the people who signed him. And it's even cooler with the guys in his clubhouse, who are all too familiar with the fact they won only 21 times in (gulp) 72 games against the Phillies in the four years Werth was there.

"If there's one thing he brings, I think, it's just winning," says third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has been a witness to all 72 of those games. "A lot of these young guys here have never really won in the pros. I mean, I'VE never won in the pros. So to come from a team that, year in and year out, is winning our division and going to the World Series, you have to learn how to do that."

It's going to be a long time before we know whether the mindset of winning is something Werth or anyone else can infuse in this group. But even though he hasn't played a game that counts yet, and even though he's hitting only .167 this spring, his coaching staff thinks the new right fielder is already making an impact.

"He's brought a mentality with him," hitting coach Rick Eckstein says. "And we've already seen it. The other day, he went into second base hard on a forceout. And the next day, we had a little baserunning talk, and he talked about why he did that and the message he was trying to send. That's something you can't find on the sheet as a stat. But it sends a message to a team. There's an attitude that comes with being a championship-caliber club. And that's an attitude we want him to bring."

In Philadelphia, Werth never had to be That Guy. Now, he's joining a team that doesn't just need him to walk that walk. It needs him to talk that talk. He can't just be the face of this franchise now. He also has to be the voice of this franchise.

Riggleman The responsibility that comes along with that contract is, you've got to walk in that clubhouse every day, and your teammates have to respect you.

-- Nationals manager Jim Riggleman

"I've never really been one to shy away from anything," Werth says. "If something needs to be said, I have no problem saying it. That's not going to change. I'm still going to be myself. But teaching a little bit of what we had in Philadelphia, and … to share some of that information, I think, is important. To make sure everybody here is on the same page and shares the same attitude when they run the bases, I think that's important.

"We've got a lot of young kids and first-year players, and we have a lot of talent. So to leave them hanging, in that respect, I think would be irresponsible. It's a unique situation. It really is. Of all the other teams out there, I don't think there was a situation like this one."

In Philadelphia, Werth's quirky personality fit right into a loose but focused group. In his first month as a National, he's already become a source of much bemusement. Just his diet alone -- complete with organic, health-food-ish clubhouse lunches that he's been known to cook up in the nearest microwave -- have attracted the attention of his new teammates.

"He's a big health guy," Zimmerman reports. "He does something with the wheat or the gluten and all that."

And what has Zimmerman picked up about the benefits of the world-famous wheat-or-gluten-and-all-that diet?

"I've been over to the house for dinner a couple of times," he says. "And I'm all for just showing up and eating food. So I'm not complaining."

For now, Zimmerman and Werth are viewed as the cornerstones of the franchise -- at least until Harper and Strasburg ascend to those gigs. So the Nationals have parked their lockers right next to each other. Which has been a powerful bonding experience, in some ways, at least.

"You know, you learn a lot about guys from how they keep their lockers," Zimmerman says, "whether it's neat or messy. I wouldn't say he's terribly messy, but he's not clean, either. He'll scatter some stuff around."

And what has Zimmerman learned about Werth from those locker-housecleaning habits?

"Keep my stuff away from his locker," the third baseman says, laughing. "It might get lost in there."

Werth also could be a valuable resource in passing along lessons in the art of facial-hair growth, since his trademark werewolf beard is as thick as ever. But Zimmerman says in his case, that's a lost cause, because he's pretty sure beard-growing isn't in his DNA.

"By next spring training, I might be able to get it," he says, "if I start now."

Hey, his loss, Werth retorts: "I'm happy," he quips, "to share."

That, however, isn't all he's happy to share. And that's the point.

The outside world has sized up Werth's flowing locks, his face full of follicles, his out-there persona and his hiring of Scott Boras to pursue a Mega Millions contract, and concluded that Werth is one of those all-about-me kinds of guys. But his teammates in Philadelphia had as much respect for him, and his commitment to winning, as they had for any occupant of that clubhouse.

So Werth knows there are going to be questions about whether he can remain healthy and productive into his late 30s, through the life of this contract. And he knows there are skeptics who think he was just a real good player who got paid like a franchise player, and who now can't wait to say, "We told you so."

But someday, when November 2017 rolls around and this contract finally expires, he says, "I hope people look back and say, 'What a great move that was.'"

For that to happen, however, he has a lottttttt of work to do. After all, he's a man with a humongous contract to live up to -- and a brand-new middle name.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst