Was He Werth* It At The Time?

Jayson Werth hit two home runs last night, helping the Phillies clinch the NL pennant and move on to the World Series. I imagine more than a couple O’s fans watching the game thought “how come we can’t get a player like that?” Well the Orioles did have a player very much like that, when they drafted Werth himself in the first round of the 1997 amateur draft. And then they let him go, in a move that is sure to have caused some regrets in the intervening years.

* I’d apologize for this, but I thought it was a rule that you can’t write about Jayson Werth without making some sort of “worth” pun.

When the O’s picked Werth 22nd overall, he was an 18 year-old catcher with some offensive upside. In a short stint in the Rookie League, he showed excellent plate discipline in posting a .295/.432/.398 line in 111 PA with as many walks as strike-outs. John Sickles, of Minor League Ball, noted that “He drew comparisons to Dale Murphy at the time: a young, power-hitting, athletic catcher with good speed. I noted in the ’98 Minor League Scouting Notebook that many young catchers fail to develop, and that Murphy didn’t blossom as a hitter until he gave up catching.”

The following season – mostly in A-Ball – Werth hit .260/.359/.382 and caught 39% of potential base-stealers from behind the plate. Not a fantastic season, but certainly fine for such a young player developing his catching skills. Sickles gave Werth a B grade and said he was a top 75 prospect.

In 1999, split about 2:1 between High A-Ball and Double-A, Werth hit .294/.390/.381and his caught stealing percentage dropped to 25%. The OBP and 63:54 strike-out to walk ratio were both encouraging, but for a big guy (he’s listed at 6’5″ today) he still wasn’t showing much pop. Sickles kept him a B prospect and thought his power would eventually develop.

The O’s had him repeat those two levels again in 2000, starting him out in Double-A but then dropping him down later in the year. His average cratered to .240, but he was consistent with the plate discipline (.358 OBP, 65:64 K to BB) and sadly also the lack of power (.362 SLG). He caught just 20% of potential base-stealers. Speculation was that the Orioles wanted to get Werth out from behind the plate, but he was reluctant to make the move. Sickles dropped his grade to a C and “was concerned that this was a serious case of Young Catcher Stagnation Syndrome.”

It was at this point that Werth (still only 22) was traded to the Blue Jays for 26 year-old lefty pitcher John Bale. Bale was still partially a starter at Triple-A at that time, and though he’d struggled a little in 2000 he had shown OK control the ability to generate strike-outs previously. Even without knowing what we know now, I wouldn’t have liked that deal when it happened. Werth had put up some good OBP numbers and was still young, while Bale looked like a reliever (even if maybe a pretty good one) that was already moving into the “prime” of his career.

Bale pitched well in the minors for the O’s, but was himself traded the following season (with only 26.2 innings of 3.04 ERA ball out of the Baltimore pen) to the Mets for Gary Matthews Jr. That deal worked out a little better for the Orioles, though Sarge Jr. was waived by the team a year later.

Werth, on the other hand, hit .271/.382/.472 with 20 HR (easily a career high at the time) for the Jays in the minors in ’01, and .257/.354/.445 the following year. By that point he had been mostly moved to the outfield, and Sickles had him as a B+ prospect. Toronto eventually traded Werth (still only 24) to the Dodgers for Jason Frasor.

In LA Werth hit .262/.338/.486 and .234/.338/.374 in parts of two seasons before being released, and the Phillies picked him up in 2007, gave him a more full-time shot, and he’s rewarded them by becoming one of the better outfielders in baseball. The guy hits (.268/.373/.506 this year, with 36 HR), runs (20 for 23 on stolen bases), and plays defense (+6.3 UZR in RF).

There’s absolutely no way to know if Werth would have developed the same way if he had stayed in the O’s system. He was in pro-ball for almost 10 years before the Phillies got him. The position change was probably a necessary step in the process, but I imagine the Orioles would have eventually tried that given that Werth was supposed to hit*. I don’t think it was an egregious case of dumping a former top prospect – the biggest problem was that they sold a player when his value was lowest and didn’t get a very good return. Congrats to Jayson on his success though.

* If he wasn’t supposed to hit, I understand trying to keep him at catcher longer*. His OBPs (with no power) would have been OK for a back-stop – but not elsewhere – so if the offensive ceiling isn’t there he wouldn’t have been able to make it at another position.

* Is a Pozterisk inside another one allowed? Anyway; from Keith Law’s chat today:

Actually it was one of the first decisions JP made after I got there. I pointed out that players as tall as Werth did not last, health-wise as catchers, and that Werth’s speed made him a good candidate to move to CF. We also discovered that he already had damage in one of his knees and that he might not be able to last the season behind the plate. So while you’re right about Werth’s production, I don’t think catching was ever in the cards for him. His knees blew out even thought we moved him.”

So I guess you really can say that the Orioles would have moved him, since it appears they wouldn’t have had a choice. Or, you know, ruined his career due to injury.