Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 2/4/12

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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