Nats hope Werth is first of many dominoes

Nats hope Werth is first of many dominoes

As the seat of two baseball franchises, Washington hasn't had a winner since 1969. As a baseball city, Washington hasn't flown a pennant since 1933. You think playing the World Series in the neighborhood of the Statue of Liberty stirs patriotic juices? Imagine the Series in the shadow of the White House.

A half-century after George Abbott fantasized about it musically in "Damn Yankees," general manager Mike Rizzo is doing fantastic things to try to make it reality. So hail to the chief of the Nationals.

It won't happen overnight for the Nats. But it will happen over time. Then again ... the Tampa Bay Rays had an even longer run of exclusive last-place finishes until rising in 2008 to snatch the title of the American League East, another pretty good division.

Joe Hardy wasn't available (if you have to ask, he is the frustrated 60-something fan who makes a deal with Mr. Satan to become the center fielder who leads his beloved Senators to triumph over the Yankees). But Jayson Werth was. He might even wind up playing the same position.

So Rizzo pulled the trigger, and a fast one. Literally: His offer for Werth so overwhelmed Scott Boras that the agent known for drawing things out could only draw out his pen.

This seven-year, $126 million union has elicited a lot of disbelief and ridicule from people both within and outside the game, who based their reactions on economics and sabermetrics. Eighteen really big ones a season for a 31-year-old with a .272 lifetime average who has never driven in 100 runs and has topped 27 home runs only once?

But this is what Rizzo and the Lerner ownership knew and accepted: They would have to overpay for the first domino, the one that could lead to others. The Nationals had played relatively nice for Mark Teixeira, and all it got them was a Leo Durocher finish. In Werth, they got a player, credibility, a place on the map.

What a bargain.

And here is something everyone else knows: Werth is a gamer, someone not measured simply by a line in the record book. He is a passionate performer, a take-no-prisoners competitor, an absolutely no-nonsense clubhouse force.

He is Kirk Gibson, reinvented. Gibson never topped 30 homers, also never drove in 100 runs. But he lit two teams to World Series championships. He won an MVP Award in 1988, a season in which he drove in all of 76 runs. Sabermetric that.

"He blew me away with the way he conducted himself," Rizzo recounted of his get-acquainted sit-down with Werth. "He asked intelligent, pertinent questions about the organization and about where we are going. That was really the turning point."

It has to start somewhere. It has to start with someone. It has to start with something -- and changing the mind-set leads off.

That becomes Werth's charge. In Philadelphia, he was respected but considered a passenger, riding shotgun to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. In Washington, he grabs the wheel.

The door is now flung open for others to fall in. Already, there are whispers in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., that the Nationals are willing to outlast and outspend the Yankees for Cliff Lee. That may not happen -- but the Nationals' threat is certainly being taken seriously.

Before Werth, it would not have been. That's what he brings, instantly.

"The team," Werth said, "gave me assurances that they are going to go out and get the type of talent that we are going to need to be competitive and to win. That is very important to me -- winning."

Werth isn't going far; Citizens Bank Park to Nationals Park is 100 miles and change. But he is going down: In his four seasons, the Phillies won four National League East titles; in the same four seasons in the same division, the Nationals lost 387 games.

Werth wants to be the face that launched a turnaround. Guys like Werth do not enjoy being well-paid also-rans.

The foundation is always more costly than the add-on floors. Werth joins Ryan Zimmerman and staff-nanny Ivan Rodriguez down there. Rodriguez, signed for the 2011 season, talked the other day about wanting to play at least two more seasons. Sounds like he wants to be there when Stephen Strasburg returns from Tommy John surgery, most likely in 2012. And the other guy ...

Nationals manager Jim Riggleman was asked on MLB Network when we could expect to see Bryce Harper in his lineup.

"How about 2012?" Riggleman said, smiling but not totally kidding.

Harper, the kid who outgrew high school the way other teens outgrow their pants, will be 19 on Opening Day 2012. Werth will be entering the second year of his seven-year commitment to turn around Washington's historic baseball malaise.

"I think everybody saw what a game-changer Stephen Strasburg was last year," Werth said. "The Harper kid is coming. He's one of the better talents in the game. I'm looking forward to playing with a talent like that."

The only thing that has changed over the years is the updated tone of that trite putdown that drove Hardy batty. Now, Washington is "first in war, first in peace and last in the NL East."

Rizzo is working on the rewrite. Perhaps there is one other move he should consider, for infield and literary alliteration purposes -- J.J. Hardy is available.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.