The End to the Jayson Werth Era

ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, via Twitter, reported that Jayson Werth broke up with agent Jeff Borris of the Beverly Hills Sports Council, thus putting the right fielder in the market for new representation. On its face, it seems like boring news as players switch agents and it never really makes a difference. However, Werth is expected to be one of the premier players on the market after the 2010 season ends along with Carl Crawford currently with the Tampa Bay Rays.

What does it mean? It could mean nothing. It could also be a very blatant signal that Werth does not see his future including red pinstripes, be it in or out of his control. Nobody besides Werth, his new agent, and the Phillies’ front office really has a good idea as to what will happen. But we can draw from some contextual clues to give us a better idea of what the future may hold.

The question a lot of people are wondering is if the Phillies will be able to retain Werth with another deep post-season run. After all, how many players willingly walk away from a team that has reached the post-season in four straight years, won a World Series and reached another one? Let’s look at the context:

  • The Phillies currently have about $145 million on the books already cemented, to be doled out to 17 players. They also have the first years of arbitration for Ben Francisco and Kyle Kendrick, and four other players potentially leaving via free agency (Jamie Moyer, Chad Durbin, Jose Contreras, and Mike Sweeney).
  • Werth is likely to command a four- or five-year deal with an average annual salary in the $17 million range, plus or minus a couple million depending on how many and which teams are involved.

Should the Phillies re-sign Werth to a market-value contract of, say, four years at $17 million per, then the Phillies would have $162 million due to 18 players. Filling out seven roster spots mostly comprised of middle relievers and bench players shouldn’t be hard, but those players do cost money. The Major League minimum is $400,000 so the Phillies would have to account for at least $3 million more, leading us to a $165 million Opening Day payroll. That’s without figuring in Minor Leaguers called up during the season whose salary will be prorated but nonetheless tangible, nor mid-season acquisitions such as Roy Oswalt and Mike Sweeney of this season. In reality, the Phillies need to give themselves the flexibility to boost payroll to at least $165 million with the potential to go to around $175 million.

The Phillies started the 2009 season, fresh off of a World Series championship, with a $113 million payroll. This year, they increased that by $25 million to $138 million. That is a very significant jump — 22 percent to be exact. If the Phillies were to jump from $138 million to $165 million, that would be another 20 percent increase. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be a big deal; after all, the Phillies did recently cross into the echelon of 100 consecutive sell-outs at home. They have a ton of money coming in. But increasing payroll by 20 percent in consecutive years really is a big deal to the people dishing out that investment. The Yankees increased payroll by 39, 22, and 32 percent from 2002-04 but that was starting from a payroll of $58 million. Starting at $113 million and going to $165 million in two years is very, very significant.

Then consider the top prospect the Phillies front office has coveted, flatly refusing to include him in any trade — even for baseball’s best pitcher, Roy Halladay. Domonic Brown is, by all accounts, ready for an everyday job in the outfield at the Major League level. With Raul Ibanez signed for one more year and Shane Victorino for two more years, there is only one logical spot to put Brown: right field. And it just so happens that right field will be vacated by a soon-to-be free agent. Swapping Werth for Brown will keep the Phillies at about $145 million with seven roster spots to fill, meaning they could potentially have an Opening Day payroll around $155 million. Given the way the organization covets Brown, they do not think the drop-off in production will be significant at all.

The Werth-Brown dilemma, from the Phillies’ perspective, then comes down to devoting $70 million or so over four years to the 31-year-old Werth, or pay the 23-year-old rookie $400,000 for relatively equivalent levels of production. That makes the decision-making seem awfully easy. Everybody and their grandmother would choose the cheaper option.

Brown was not coveted simply because the organization liked him so much, but because they saw the vacancy in right field coming way in advance. They have known for quite some time that they would be unwilling and/or unable to compete for Werth’s services in free agency and have prepared accordingly. If the Phillies thought they had a good shot at keeping Werth around, we would have seen one of the outfielders traded — namely Ibanez (as a salary dump) or Victorino. But despite ample opportunity, that never happened.

The only logical conclusion here is that Werth’s time in Philadelphia is running out. The front office knows this. Werth is likely very aware of this and it is very likely the reason why he decided to seek new representation in early September. Would a player intent on staying put do that? Consider that he was the subject of a baseless salacious rumor involving extra-marital affairs and baseless character assassination by some in the Philadelphia sports media. He also bore the brunt of a newfound reputation as an unclutch player and an irritable shut-in.

No, we don’t know for sure that Werth’s days as a Phillie are ending soon. We are not privy to the discussions between Werth and the Phillies’ front office. Very little has been reported about this matter outside of Werth’s new search for representation. However, looking at all of the little contextual clues, we can conclude rather confidently that he’s not coming back after the season regardless of how much success the team enjoys in October.

UPDATE: Craig Calcaterra reports that Scott Boras is the leading candidate to represent Werth:

[…] Crasnick’s source says Werth is “shopping” for new representation. I’m hearing the same thing.

What else I’m hearing: the front runner is Scott Boras, with whom Werth is “way down the road,” according to my sources, and it’s looking like he will sign with him.