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Nationals have a lot of potential ... but the Werth deal looks silly

The Washington Nationals have averaged 96 losses over the past five years. They play in a division with three of the best-run clubs in baseball, and a fourth, the New York Mets, that is very rich and was just turned over to some very smart operators. One of their three most valuable assets, Bryce Harper, was drafted this summer, just weeks before another, Stephen Strasburg, blew his arm out.

This is not a team that should be in the business of signing ballplayers to $126 million contracts. Jayson Werth is not a $126 million ballplayer. That the Nationals have signed Werth to a $126 million contract is very strange.

To be fair, Werth is good at baseball. Like Garret Anderson or Randy Winn, he has a broad base of offensive skills and a solid defensive game that makes him capable of playing center in a bind. (Unlike them, he even walks a lot.) Like them, he enjoyed a peak season at 31. Like them, he will probably be able to help teams well into his 30s. That he probably will not be able to provide $126 million worth of help isn't his fault. If someone offered to pay me that much money to play for the Nationals, I would take it too.

The interesting angle here, though, doesn't involve Werth's talents. It involves the Nationals, and what they want to be.

Washington is an extremely rich market. (The city is poor and small; the suburbs are neither.) By my preferred measure -- multiplying metro population by per capita income and dividing by the number of major league teams -- it is actually the third richest in baseball. This even understates things. On a scale where 1 is average and the New York teams are at 2.45, the Nationals are at 1.68. The next-best team, the Philadelphia Phillies, are at 1.38. The gap between the Nationals and the Boston Red Sox is larger than the gap between Boston and the Arizona Diamondbacks or Seattle Mariners.

This doesn't mean that the Nationals are rich. It does mean that they have a lot of latent potential. If they were ever able to field a consistently good team, all of the defense contractors, lobbyists, well-paid bureaucrats and journalistic celebrities in Arlington, Bethesda and Silver Spring would come spend great sums at the ballpark. The franchise has great incentives to run out a good nine.

None of this constitutes an excuse for the Werth signing, and in fact it makes the deal look sillier than it otherwise would. While it's a good idea for the Nationals to spend a lot of money on a good player, if they had $126 million to hand out they would have done much better to scrounge up some more and some prospects besides and wrest Prince Fielder from the Milwaukee Brewers or Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres. Overpaying for a legitimate MVP candidate would make some sense both as a straight baseball move and as an attempt to command psychic space in the Washington area. Overpaying for a better version of Garret Anderson makes sense as neither.

Still, as a statement of intent this is a move to be applauded. As always bears pointing out, the fundamental problem with the National League is that the teams that should naturally dominate it -- the Mets, the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers -- are all, to varying extents, bloody messes. There is open space for an aggressive team in a rich market to spend its way to contention.

Taken on its own, the Werth move is nothing much, a transaction that will give the team value on the field commensurate with the money they're paying if all goes perfectly and end as a joke if it doesn't. If it proves the first in a series of deals that attempt to leverage a natural, if as yet unexploited, financial advantage into a roster worthy of the talents of Harper, Strasburg and the great Ryan Zimmerman, it could look reasonably savvy. The Detroit Tigers looked quite silly when they signed Magglio Ordonez, another vaguely similar player, ahead of the 2005 season. By the end of 2006, there was a pennant flying over Comerica Park.

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