Jayson Werth, Center Fielder?

As Dave discussed yesterday, Nationals manager Davey Johnson is in favor of having Bryce Harper begin the season as his starting right fielder. This would undoubtedly affect Jayson Werth, since he is the incumbent right fielder.

First, let’s work under a couple of assumptions. The first is that if Harper starts the season with the big boys that he’ll play nearly every day, assuming good health. Second, Harper’s carrying so much hype that the Nats aren’t going to jerk around his defensive position. He’s going to play right field and that’s that.

So where does Werth go? He could move to left field, with Michael Morse shifting permanently to first base and Adam LaRoche moving to the bench (or to the waiver wire). But an idea with some traction is for the Nationals to move Werth to center field. It’s not the craziest idea. After all, Werth has played center field before. And he has always been athletic.

Werth began his pro career as a catcher, but after a brief stint at first base, he moved to the outfield nearly full time in 2002 and was there for good the next year. And while the move cost him some of his prospect luster — he was Baseball America’s 70th-best prospect before 2002 and 94th-best before 2003 — his athletic ability was never questioned. Here is what BA had to say about him in 2003, when he was rated the second-best prospect in the Blue Jays’ system:

Werth has exceptional athletic ability and made the transition to the outfield look easy. He instantly took to reading balls and took excellent routes, and has the arm, speed and range for any outfield position…. Werth could either be an above-average corner outfielder or the next Eli Marrero, a super utility player.

Now, it took a few years, but “above-average corner outfielder” is what he became. But the more interesting tidbit is “arm, speed and range for any outfield position.” And his managers seemed to agree with the sentiment. Werth has played at least one game in center in all nine of his big-league seasons; and he has done it even more frequently as his career has progressed — 72 games in the past four years. He has generally been pretty good. While it might be hard to trust the accumulated totals of small samples, Werth has graded out with a positive DRS, UZR and UZR/150 in his time in center. But could he really play center full time? After all, he’s never played more than 31 games at the position in any one season, and that was in 2008. And Werth isn’t exactly a spring chicken. This year is his age-33 season.

To find out, I looked at players from this past 10 seasons who played center field at 30 years old or older. There are 60 of them. From this list, I wanted to see which ones switched to center field from another position. For instance, in 2002, Craig Biggio was a second basemen. But in 2003, he became the Astros’ center fielder. This narrowed our list to 26 players. Of those 26, we can remove four guys because they were little more than role players: Quinton McCracken (2005), Scott Podsednik (2008), DeWayne Wise (2009) and Darin Erstad (2006). That leaves us with a sample of 22 players:

 

Name Prev CF GP Yr1 Age GP UZR/150
Ichiro Suzuki 42 2007 33 155 4.8
Craig Biggio 39 2003 37 150 -10.5
Brady Clark 27 2005 32 145 -2.7
Jay Payton 354 2004 31 128 10.5
Randy Winn 370 2004 30 128 7.3
Eric Byrnes 134 2006 30 123 13.4
Kosuke Fukudome 12 2009 32 113 -12.3
Dave Roberts 301 2005 33 109 -7.7
Gary Matthews Jr. 276 2005 30 97 4.9
Garret Anderson 310 2004 32 94 -14.3
Brian Hunter 613 2002 31 88 5.8
Jacque Jones 159 2007 32 84 15.7
Carl Everett 593 2003 32 81 -1.6
Jody Gerut 26 2008 30 80 8.2
Damon Hollins 0 2005 31 80 -15
Reed Johnson 64 2008 31 78 -11.5
Darnell McDonald 12 2010 31 69 -13.9
Endy Chavez 403 2011 33 66 9.3
So Taguchi 162 2007 37 63 4.6
Willie Harris 165 2009 31 63 -18.1
Jose Macias 23 2002 30 58 -1.6
Ryan Freel 80 2006 30 54 20.3
AVERAGE 189.32 31.77 95.73 -0.28

In the chart, “Prev CF GP” stands for “previous games played in center field.” The three columns to the right of year all pertain to that year specifically.

Of the 22 on this list, only Biggio, Macias and Freel were not left fielders or right fielders the previous season — though for Gerut and Chavez, it was one or more years removed. More than half of the players in the sample had more time in center than did Werth. Even with that though, the players didn’t do all that well in terms of UZR, with an average of -.28 per 150 games played. Many of these guys had been center fielders, had moved off of the position, and were brought back for one last hurrah. That’s not what Werth is. The best comp on the list might be Ichiro, another player who evaluators always said had the chops for center, but who had never played the position full-time (at least stateside). But one-year UZR samples aren’t necessarily the most accurate, so it is best to look at this another way. How many of these guys ended up back in center field for a second year? Let’s take a look:

 

Name Yr2 CF GP Pri pos? Yr3 CF GP Pri pos?
Ichiro Suzuki 69 No 0 No
Craig Biggio 66 No 0 No
Brady Clark 114 Yes 14 No
Jay Payton 41 No 46 No
Randy Winn 61 No 59 No
Eric Byrnes 23 No 6 No
Kos. Fukudome 0 No 13 No
Dave Roberts 13 No 92 Yes
G. Matthews Jr. 142 Yes 135 Yes
Gar. Anderson 0 No 0 No
Brian Hunter 14 No
Jacque Jones 5 No
Carl Everett 0 No 0 No
Jody Gerut 42 Yes 10 Yes
Damon Hollins 33 No
Reed Johnson 42 Yes 7 No
Darn. McDonald 13 No N/A N/A
Endy Chavez N/A N/A N/A N/A
So Taguchi 1 No 0 No
Willie Harris 2 No 7 No
Jose Macias 15 No 7 No
Ryan Freel 59 Yes 23 Yes
AVERAGE 35.95 24.65

In year two only five of the 21 players were still primarily in center, and the average games played in center field dropped by nearly 60. Three of those five didn’t spend more than half the season there. In year three, the total drops to four of 20, and the average drops another 11 games. Two of the four are role players, and Roberts didn’t play center full time in year two. In fact, not all of the players even made it to year three. Hollins, Hunter and Jones were out of the game completely by then.

Now, not all of this necessarily means that these guys stunk up the joint. Some of them simply reflect the way the team’s roster was shaped. For instance, the whole reason Biggio moved to center was to accommodate Jeff Kent. And then in 2004, Biggio moved off of center to accommodate Carlos Beltran, who arrived in June in a blockbuster trade. Anderson never played center again because the Angels acquired Little Sarge, who sticks out as the lone definitive success here. But overall, things generally didn’t work out.

The future certainly needs to be taken into account here. Werth is entering the second year of a seven-year deal, and while the Nats shouldn’t hold back Harper to protect Werth, they have an obligation to keep him healthy. The Nats might not get much value out of the $83 million that they will pay Werth from 2014 to 2017, but they won’t have a chance to get any value if he spends more time on the trainer’s table than on the field. Even if the plan now is to get just one year out of Werth in center, how will that affect him in years three through seven of his contract? Will the move to center have unintended consequences in future years even if he moves to left field or first base? And while the Nats want to sign a center fielder next winter, you never know how things will play out. Just because there are a lot of available center fielders next offseason there’s no guarantee that the Nats would land one.

Jayson Werth is an athletic player, and he has experience in center field, but he is also an expensive player, and Washington needs to make sure he doesn’t end up as a sunk cost. Werth may be able to hang in center field this season, but recent history shows that the Nationals would be wise to make sure that this experiment lasts for only one season — if it lasts that long at all.




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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. He has also written extensively for ESPN MLB Insider. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


27 Responses to “Jayson Werth, Center Fielder?”

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  1. Randy says:

    I think it makes the most sense to play Werth and Harper at the corners and acquire a more defensive-minded centerfielder. You could make an argument that Harper should play CF due to his youth, but it is a more demanding position that might make his transition more difficult. But Werth in CF means you are relying on an aging player who you signed to a massive contract to focus on playing the more demanding position and that could be bad for your investment especially if it leads to more injuries (not sure if there is evidence to support that assertion). I’d say given their current personnel (and assuming Harper makes the jump) you go with Werth in CF and Morse in LF, but I wouldn’t rely on that for a full season. That being said, CF in Nats Park isn’t that large and LF is an overall pretty scarce position, so fill LF in-house and get a new CFer. Play Harper at whatever position you think he can handle and plan to keep him there long term.

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  2. John C. says:

    If Harper makes the club this season (whether out of Spring Training or later) it makes sense to move Werth to CF as a short term fix. He’s not going to be moving to CF for the balance of his contract, or even for 2-3 years; it’s strictly a 2012 thing even if he’s pretty good at it.

    Think about it. The thing holding the Nationals back right now is their offense. Right now if Werth plays RF their CF combination is a Roger Bernadina/Mike Cameron platoon. That’s pretty awful offensively. They need to have Werth, Morse, and Adam LaRoche are in the everyday lineup. Is LaRoche a premium offensive threat for a first baseman, even if healthy? Nope. But is he a lot better than Bernadina/Cameron? Oh yeah – and it’s not close. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if DeRosa or one of other nonroster invites starts in RF and Werth is in CF even before Harper comes up. No, a Morse/Werth/Harper combination is not a plus defensively. But it’s probably better than Holliday/Jay/Berkman, and the Cardinals did all right.

    Long term, LaRoche is only under contract through 2012 (the team has an option for 2013). More importantly, the Nationals’ options for CF open up in a big way with a large number of free agents (Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino, Marlon Byrd, Grady Sizemore) as well as seeing how the prospects (Corey Brown, Michael Taylor, Brian Goodwin) develop. So for 2013, all other things being equal, Morse goes to 1b (he actually did a creditable job there for having not really played the position before), Werth goes to LF, Harper stays in RF and New Guy (whether a free agent or farm hand) plays CF.

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    • John C. says:

      Personally, my one year fix for the team is to sign Fukudome to an affordable one year deal. He’s pretty meh as a CF, but his defensive metrics are quite good in RF. Fukudome starts in RF with Werth in CF. Fukudome also provides the team with OBP that it sorely needs, either in the leadoff or #2 spot in the batting order.

      When/if Harper is ready the team could then decides whether, based on health and performance, it would prefer to have Fukudome or LaRoche on the field. If the former, Fukudome moves to LF and Morse to 1b. If the latter, Fukudome sits to make room for Harper. Either way, the Nationals have a decent LH bench bat (another need) until the sitting player is possibly traded.

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      • subtle says:

        Actually, Fukudome’s metrics have been falling off for the last couple seasons in right. It looks like his defensive skills are in decline, especially when you look at UZR. He’d be a terrible idea in center at this point in his career.

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      • John C says:

        @subtle (not sure why no “reply” link turned up):

        That’s why I wrote “Fukudome starts in RF with Werth in CF”

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  3. John says:

    One ‘solution’ that I think Rizzo may be exploring is trading Lannan for another flexible outfield player. One guy that comes to my mind is Will Venable— he also has experience in CF and can play there if needed, but can also spell Morse in left and give LaRoche a day off.

    If you can’t find a perfect solution (that high OBP CF guy), you would be better to have a couple of options and play the matchups on a day to day basis.

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  4. Ronin says:

    “…the players didn’t do all that well in terms of UZR, with an average of -.28 per 150 games played.”

    Isn’t 0 UZR/150 considered an average fielder? Meaning the sample pool above was a quarter of a run below average over a full season? I think I would take that kind of defense out of my center fielder if he had the hitting potential of Jayson Werth. Heck even with the crummy line he put up last year he was 103 RC+.

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    • Kevin says:

      I came here to post the same. It sounds like the author had his conclusion written before the stats were run.

      Now the part about Werth being more likely to get injured by playing in an unnatural position I do agree with. Ideally, the Nats would only have to play him there for one year and then could bring in someone like a Bourn.

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    • B N says:

      Seconded. Given the massive difference in positional adjustment between corner OF and CF, giving up 0.25 runs in defense is basically nothing. If anything, this may indicate that teams would be far better off sticking with these type of guys at CF if they can get somebody decent to play the corners.

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      • bstar says:

        Thirded, if that’s possible. I’d play Morse in LF, though. Personally, I thought he was horrible at 1B. If you play Laroche, you get better D at 1B and better offense from Morse over Cameron/Bernadina in the outfield.

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  5. DCUnited says:

    Harper played all 3 OF positions in the minors last year. He could easily play CF just as much as RF if they decide he can handle it full time. I think the long term idea is that Harper plays RF, LaRoche gets traded, Morse moves to 1B, Werth moves to LF, and a CF who has been acquired via a package that involves John Lannan steps in at that point.

    Of course, Werth put up a 3.0 UZR/150 in 19 CF games (151.2 innings) last year with a career 5.3 UZR/150 in 123 CF games (877 innings). It may be that Werth actually plays average or better CF and no other CF is needed.

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  6. subtle says:

    Werth is certainly worthy of a shot at center. He’s been one of the best defensive right fielders in recent seasons and has a little speed left that should give him some range.

    As Bryce Harper fills out, he will probably go the Hamilton route, which is to say that his speed will significantly fall off. He might have the wheels for center now, but that probably won’t keep up.

    Michael Bourn will probably be a free agent next off-season, but he’s not a remarkable center-fielder and you’d end up paying a veteran who relies on his legs for most of his offensive value. Not necessarily a great idea.

    At some point, I’d expect Bourjos to hit the trade block so the Angels can play Trout in center full time and pick up cheaper options in the corner outfield positions.

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  7. Sour Bob says:

    LaRoche to the bench is no great tragedy. Move Morse to 1B and trade for Marlon Byrd to play center.

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  8. HaloImpalo says:

    I don’t know if something has changed about Harper’s defense since I saw him at Class A Hagerstown last summer, but his breaks on fly balls were just hideous – he looked like a more athletic Vlad Guerrero out there.

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  9. Ben says:

    What about trading for one of the Kansas City Royals’ CF prospects for this year? If you have masher at the corners, then a CF of Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, David Lough, or Mitch Maier (just alphabetical order by last name) might not be that bad.

    Granted, this is not ideal – as none of them are proven starters, I just had the idea after looking at Royals Review’s front page story (from Thursday) earlier today: http://www.royalsreview.com/2012/2/2/2766388/is-lorenzo-cain-the-best-option-for-cf

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  10. Jorgath says:

    As a Nats fan with certain contacts with a little knowledge (read – I get the inside scoop from Nats beat bloggers), I can tell you that the plan seems to be to move Werth to CF for this year, decline LaRoche’s 2013 option and move Morse to 1B in 2013, put Werth and Harper back on the corners for 2013, and sign a CF from the much deeper 2013 FA pool.

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  11. D Brown says:

    Mr Bourn would fit nicely in 2013.

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  12. NickC says:

    Any time Gary Matthews Jnr is considered to be the only success probably means it isn’t a good idea.

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  13. JaysFan2012 says:

    For me this is a NON-problem. While Werth had a poor year by his standards last year, I like the upside there. If Werth plays average defense in CF, then I think that is a BONUS. He is going to provide production that is at least slightly above average for a CF, and having watched a few games last year, he is surprisingly quick out there. If I were a Nationals fan, I would be happy to have this “problem”

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  14. ajb says:

    If i was the nats i would sign fukadome or another extra OF, start harper in either Double or Triple A make him force there hand. Hodgepodge the of for this season. combination of the guys that have plus the best of the nonroster Fa’s they get can hold down the fort until Harper is ready, If by the trade deadline they are in it, then yeah fill some holes but dont go crazy. Personally id rotate it and use everyone that can play CF this year and just survive.

    Line up to compete next year when the innings counts wont be on your best starters and they are both year or 2 removed from injury concerns. Sign Bj Upton this next off season move Espinosa to short and hopefully either A Rendon is ready or B one of the others in house fill it.

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  15. ajb says:

    Also the offense should be much improved this year to begin with, if Werth has a bounce back at all and having a healthy Zim even when he wasnt on the dl last year he wasn’t right. Full year of him being him will be a massive upgrade.

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  16. bstar says:

    One thing no one’s mentioned is Mike Cameron playing CF, at least part time. I know he’s 75 years old but he’s still posting positive UZRs in center field.

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  17. Cidron says:

    While not spectacular, Rick Ankiel is in the mix too, right? If memory serves, he was a Nats player last yr, and on a minor league invite this year. He does possess a fine arm and some ability, though injuries have been his undoing lately.

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