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Werth it?

Of the eight arbitration-eligible Phillies with whom GM Ruben Amaro Jr. and assistant Scott Pruefrock will be negotiating over the next two months or so, the one who seems most likely to get a multi-year contract is outfielder Jayson Werth. This is a matter of both urgency and circumstance: Werth is in his last year before free agency, and unlike fellow arbitration last-timer Ryan Madson, he’s not represented by Scott Boras. For the team’s part, they likely want to lock in their only right-handed hitter who remotely scares opponents; for Werth, the prospect of a guaranteed payday after spending the better part of a decade as a part-time player and frequent disabled list resident would seem to be pretty compelling.

As candidates for multiyear deals go, though, Werth comes to the table as less of a known quantity than almost anyone in recent memory. At age 30 as of this May, he’s entering his first season in which he’s projected to play full-time. This is in part because he’s shown a platoon differential throughout his career, and in part because he’s never gone a full season without landing on the DL. On the other hand, there’s plenty of reason to believe Werth is a classic late bloomer: he was healthier in 2007 and 2008 than at any previous point in his career, he’s obviously taken well to the instruction of manager Charlie Manuel and hitting coach Milt Thompson, and his numbers against right-handed pitchers are solid (.255/.360/.407 in 2008), if not close to his cartoonish success against southpaws (.652 slugging percentage, 16 HR in 171 plate appearances).

What can we expect from Werth going forward?

There isn’t much in the way of comparable players to cast light. Baseball-Reference suggests the most similar guy through age 29 is outfielder Glenallen Hill, whose age-30 season in 1995 was a fairly close match to what Werth did last year, albeit with less patience: Hill put up a .264/.317/.483 line, with 24 home runs and 25 steals. Hill never cracked 400 at-bats again after that year, when he had 497, though aside from one bad year in 1997, he remained a well above-average offensive player through age 35.

Finally, though it’s not necessarily pertinent to future negotiations, it’s also probably valid to note that at $1.7 million, Werth might have been the best value in baseball last season. This analysis suggests that based on his contributions, he should have pulled down $22 million; even if that seems high (and it does, to me), it’s fair to say that his 20/20 performance plus superior defense playing about three-quarters of the time represented an indispensable contribution to the Phils’ world championship win.

As pure speculation, I would look for the Phils to offer Werth two guaranteed years at around $4 million and $6 million, then a third for perhaps $8 million that might vest with a given number of at-bats in 2010 or through a team option/buyout scenario. At that price, he’s likely either to represent a tremendous value, if he can stay healthy and come close to projecting his ’08 numbers over a season of full-time play, or a decent bet that turned out badly if he falls short on either count.

However the Phils go forward, Werth is almost certain to prove an easier and less contentious call than Ryan Howard or Cole Hamels, who could easily command a combined $20 million through the arbitration process.