Jon Heyman
Wednesday April 7th, 2010

You might think Jayson Werth already had his breakout season last year, when he set career highs in nearly every category, made his first All-Star team and finished 17th in MVP voting. But there are a few reasons Werth might be even better this season.

1. He just might be warming up now, as last year was actually his first full year as a starting player (he split time the year before with Geoff Jenkins, who's now out of the game). Werth's seven home runs in 15 postseason games could be an indication something even better is coming.

2. He remains perfectly placed as the prime right-handed threat in a lefty lineup that may be the best in baseball. Opposing teams will throw as many left-handers against the Phillies as they can find. Werth had a 1.080 OPS vs. left-handers last year compared to an .808 mark against right-handers.

3. He has yet to cash in for the big bucks befitting a star, and while the walk year can weigh on some players, he is the kind who can handle it.

"I feel like I played my whole career to get to this year,'' Werth said in an interview with SI.com just before the season started. "I signed in '97, and this is what we came for. If I do what I'm supposed to, everything will take care of itself.''

The pressure is off, he figures. "I feel like after what I did last year I kind of put the pressure on someone else,'' he said.

Finally, that's true. It's been a long, sometimes torturous ride for Werth, who was set back by a severe wrist injury while with the Dodger a few years back. It's hard to believe he didn't earn a full-time starting job until last year, when he turned 30. Seems like a lot of wasted time for someone this talented.

Yet, he never gave up hope that he'd one day become a star (or at least a starter), and last year he made the most of a chance that could have come many years before by hitting 36 home runs with 99 RBIs. But he is not just a slugger, though. One competing executive called him a "five-tool player,'' which should bode well for his coming free agency

"I always felt I could play at this level,'' he said. "The thing is, I just wasn't sure I'd get the opportunity. Opportunities are hard to come by. A lot of guys fall through the cracks.''

Legendary general manager Pat Gillick is the one guy who made sure Werth didn't fall through. If a player is going to have one person in his corner, this is the guy, and Gillick always saw something special in Werth. Gillick, one of the best GMs in major league history, was in charge of the Orioles when they selected Werth in the first round in the 1997 draft. By 2006, Gillick was the GM of the Phillies and Werth had missed the entire season with his wrist woes. Nevertheless, Gillick showed up at Werth's house in Springfield, Ill., after the season with a contract.

"He had the stones to give me a second chance,'' Werth said.

Since Werth didn't realize his potential until he got to the Phillies, and when he finally was on the cusp of his first full-time job, he jumped at the chance to sign a safe $10-million, two-year contract. But Werth figures to have a chance now to sign a deal at least five times that, and probably more than that. It's hard to make a case that Jason Bay's a better player, and he got $66 million from the Mets.

Many are suggesting Werth will definitely leave Philadelphia with top prospect Domonic Brown expected to be ready to take an outfield spot. But Werth isn't ruling out a return. When asked whether he'd like to stay, he said "Of course." Although, it doesn't appear there's room, nothing should be assumed for a team as creative as the Phillies, a team which found a way to replace Cliff Lee with Roy Halladay. Assuming the left-handed-hitting Brown is ready to start in 2011, and most experts think he will be, they'd probably have to trade Raul Ibanez to find room for Werth, though. If Werth is merely replaced by Brown, a lefty-heavy lineup becomes too lefty. "We've got this team together for one more year,'' Werth noted. "I don't know what they're thinking, or really even what I'm thinking. We'll figure it out.''

Werth certainly will have options. The Yankees are thought to have Carl Crawford at the top of their free-agent wish list, but one Yankees executive loves Werth. And the New York Post reported that Reggie Jackson took Werth out to lunch during spring training in Tampa.

Right now, Werth has Philly on his mind. "It's a good place to come to work every day,'' he said. "We've got a chemistry. We have a great atmosphere. The guys are pretty positive and business oriented.''

After the year it'll be business time for Werth 13 years after he was picked out of Springfield, Ill. And is now finally ready to cash in big.

A few more breakout candidates for this year ...

1. Rickie Weeks. Appears determined to become a star. Has football mentality and competitiveness, and appears ready to make up for a mostly lost 2009 season, according to Brewers coach Willie Randolph.

2. Ricky Nolasco. The Marlins pitcher is a perfectionist and looked even better than teammate Josh Johnson this spring.

3. The Uptons. The Diamondbacks' Justin is practically there, and with a little more concentration, folks think the Rays' B.J. can be, too. Justin's new $51.25 million contract would make him comfortable, and he said it might "light a fire'' under older brother B.J.

4. Matt Kemp. Dodgers' outfielder is on the cusp of becoming one of the better players in the league.

5. Ubaldo Jimenez. Scouts believe the Rockies' ace could be dominant.

6. Yovani Gallardo. Terrific all-around athlete and Brewers ace has the potential to be a Cy Young winner, according to his former catcher Jason Kendall.

7. Robinson Cano. It the ball on the screws almost every at-bat late in spring. Joe Torre said when he first came up he reminded him of Rod Carew. He's moved up to the No. 5 spot in the Yankees lineup, and has gone 4-for-8 with three RBIs in his first two games.

8. Carlos Gonzalez. Rockies' outfielder showed a taste of his potential with .588 postseason average.

• The Brewers are trying to work out an extension for Prince Fielder, who can become a free agent after the 2011 season. The Twins kept Joe Mauer but had the advantage of the Twin Cities being his hometown. This isn't going to be easy for a small-market team, even one with an owner as determined as Mark Attanasio. The Mauer (eight years, $184 million) and Mark Teixeira (eight years, $180 million) contracts would seem to provide guidance for a possible Fielder deal.

• There's no guarantee Houston's Lance Berkman, who had knee surgery in spring training, will be back when he's eligible April 10. Jeff Bagwell, his predecessor at first base and an Astros part-time executive, said he's concerned about Berkman in an interview on MLB Network. Berkman recently had a cortisone shot.

• John Maine didn't win the job as the No. 2 starter for the Mets, whose decision-makers just didn't want him next to Oliver Perez in the rotation since it appears they won't last long in games that they start, thus necessitating a heavy workload for the bullpen. Maine makes his first start of the season tonight against Florida.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia's game-winning hit on Opening Day seemed to carry over the Rangers' late-inning magic from last year.

David Ortiz looks like he might start this year like he did last year, which isn't good. The Red Sox hold a $12.5-million option for 2011 on Ortiz, and with the value of hitters heading down last winter, it seems like a long shot that that option will be exercised barring a return to the 50-plus homer Ortiz.

• The Tigers are expecting Austin Jackson to be an upgrade in center field over Curtis Granderson. While Tigers people aren't saying it aloud, some of them believed Granderson was slipping as a center fielder.

• It's going to be fun monitoring the Yankees' big lineup decisions day-by-day. One day after the departed Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon each provided the go-ahead hit in their team's victories, newcomer Nick Johnson had the go-ahead walk for the Yankees in their win over rival Boston. Johnson is 0-for-5 on the year, but his four walks give him a .500 on-base percentage, which is what the Yankees were looking for when they re-acquired him in the offseason.

• Congratulations to Pat Courtney, who was promoted to senior VP of public relations for MLB. He will take over leadership of the department for retiring Rich Levin, who is staying through the season.

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