The art of the megadeal: Like Nationals, Cubs will have to sign their Werth

The art of the megadeal: Like Nationals, Cubs will have to sign their Werth
November 29, 2012, 3:00 am
Share This Post

The day is coming where the Cubs are going to force you to pay attention. Jay Cutler and Derrick Rose won’t dominate talk radio. The buzz won’t revolve entirely around the Bears and Bulls.

Team president Theo Epstein will hold up a white pinstriped jersey at a stadium club news conference. There will be a photo shoot in front of the ivy and outside the Wrigley Field marquee, selling the dream of a parade down Michigan Avenue.

This will be The Right Player at The Right Time.

The Atlanta Braves landed B.J. Upton on Wednesday with a reported five-year, $75.25 million deal. The Cubs won’t be making any $150 million investments next week during the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. But eventually they’re going to have to jump in and sign a free agent to a contract longer than one year, even if the splash messes up their precise definition of value.

It could happen sooner than you think. Just listen to Chicago guy Mike Rizzo explain the art of the megadeal, and you get an idea of how the Cubs might get it done.

Two years ago, on the eve of the winter meetings, Rizzo made a huge bet on Jayson Werth and sent shockwaves throughout the industry. The numbers seemed like pure fantasy at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort: Seven years at $126 million.

But it was all part of a carefully calculated plan for the Washington Nationals general manager. Dec. 5, 2010 would be a landmark day in franchise history.

“We were at the point (with) our young players (where) we saw them coming,” Rizzo recalled. “They weren’t going to be those impact players yet, but we saw those guys scratching the surface and we were convinced that they were going to be good, solid core pieces for us for a long time.

“We had just come off 59 wins and then 69 wins, so we had an uptick in improvement and we felt that we needed (something). There was very much a loser mentality there, a losing culture, not only in the clubhouse, but in all surrounding areas, and I wanted to cut that out.”

Relaxed after a season in which the Nationals won 98 games and the National League East, Rizzo rattled off the details during an interview earlier this month at the general manager meetings in Indian Wells, Calif.

The kid who grew up west of Wrigley Field on Waveland Avenue sketched out the kind of player the Cubs will chase.  

“Jayson brought us a veteran presence with a good skill set,” Rizzo said. “He was the two-way type of player that we were looking for. If you remember, at that time, we had guys like (Cristian) Guzman playing second and Adam Dunn was at first and we were very one-dimensional.

“We weren’t good defensively. We didn’t run the bases well. We could hit a home run with you, but it didn’t help our good, young pitchers that were coming up. (So) we wanted to get more athletic, more high-energy.”

Werth would turn 32 during his first season in Washington, but he had earned a World Series ring with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. He had emerged as a strong supporting outfield piece on teams that won four straight division titles. Big-money players have to be leaders.

“I was extremely comfortable with who the person was, the makeup,” Rizzo said. “I had scouted him since he was in high school. He’s an Illinois kid. I played in the minor leagues with his uncle, so I knew the kid backwards and forward.”

This is what Epstein means when he says the premier free agents have to check off (almost) all your boxes.

But it also means dealing with Scott Boras, because the super-agent shrewdly pushes his clients to the open market at a time where clubs are locking up their best players with extensions. And you have to pull the trigger, even if the timing isn’t exactly right.

“It was a year ahead of schedule,” Rizzo said, “because that player was there that year. We knew with the length of the contract, he was going to be with us when these guys really came into their own.

“With Bryce Harper on his way up, (Werth) was going to be one of the guys to take him (under his wing). Same agency, same position – he was going (to) mentor him to become a better player at a quicker rate, accelerate his developmental curve and we’d get our money that way out of him.”        

On the North Side, maybe that’s someone who will push Starlin Castro, protect Anthony Rizzo and teach Javier Baez.   

Rizzo estimated his major-league payroll was around $50 million that winter. The Nationals had Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann lined up for their rotation, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond on the left side of the infield, and power arms like Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard out of the bullpen.

Werth had been an All-Star just once, never finished higher than eighth in the MVP voting and still hasn’t generated 100 RBI in a season. But this negotiation went beyond numbers.

“Most importantly, he was good on the field, off the field, in the dugout, in the clubhouse and in the community,” Rizzo said. “He brought us a winning attitude. After he sat down with ownership and myself, we were convinced that he was going to change the culture and he wasn’t going to allow us to be ‘the losing Nats.’

“We knew we had some money to spend. He was our No. 1 target and we went hard after him. To convince him to come to a 59-, 69-win team, we had to overpay him. But he fit the criteria that we wanted.”

Werth broke his wrist last May, but came back as a leadoff hitter, grinding out at-bats for a team that looks like a contender for years to come. The Nationals were so self-assured that they shut down Strasburg as a precaution in his full recovery from Tommy John surgery.

“We have a philosophy,” Rizzo said. “It was a difficult time for me personally, and for the organization, to take the heat for that decision, but that’s what I get paid for. You take the arrows for the manager and ownership and everything else.

“I felt at ease with the decision the whole time, and I still do. (But) the furor in the industry – (the decibels from) the analysts and the experts – (that) surprised me a little bit.”

The Cubs aren’t doing shock and awe yet. They will have to stick to their plan, but deviate when necessary. They need to study the deals from every angle, without experiencing paralysis by analysis. They will need to identify the missing piece – and then block out all the noise.  

More Team Talk