CLEARWATER, Fla. - If forced to select one word as the theme for his 2009 season, Jayson Werth might choose finally. As in, he finally played a full season without a detour to the disabled list. He finally produced statistics worthy of the expectations he placed on himself, and he finally found the perfect time, place, and team for his talent to blossom.
And now he must decide whether he wants to stay.
The Phillies rightfielder arrived at spring training yesterday with long hair and a thick beard, entering the final season of a two-year, $10 million contract. With the Phillies saying they have limited payroll flexibility beyond the approximately $140 million currently committed, Werth might have priced himself out of Philadelphia.
"I think everybody knows the situation," Werth, 30, said yesterday in his first public comments on possible free agency. (He declined to discuss the new facial hair.)
"It's not a secret, but really, I'm focused on playing baseball and being part of another championship season," he said.
Werth said that his agent had engaged in "preliminary" talks with the Phillies on a contract extension, but that they had amounted to "nothing, really."
He did not rule out discussing an extension during the season.
"We'll have to see," he said. "That's what I've got an agent for. They handle all that stuff. My focus is the Philadelphia Phillies."
Outfielder Jason Bay, whose offensive numbers compare to Werth's and whose defense is considered inferior, signed a four-year, $66 million contract with the New York Mets this winter. Outfielder Matt Holliday remained with the St. Louis Cardinals for $120 million over seven years.
When asked if he expected comparable money, Werth pointed to his relative lack of experience.
"I think their situation is a little different from mine," he said. "I think I'm a season away from something like that. I think I'm really just focused on being part of something special again."
Playing for the Phillies has indeed been special for Werth. Frustrated after injury-plagued years in the Baltimore, Toronto, and Los Angeles organizations, Werth signed with the Phils before the 2007 season - after the Dodgers decided not to offer him a contract.
Werth has rebuilt his career. Last year, he played in 159 games, hit 36 home runs, and posted a .373 on-base percentage.
Asked yesterday if loyalty and gratitude to the Phillies would influence his decision, Werth answered carefully.
"It's tough to say right now," he said. "Spring training starts tomorrow, and yes, I am very grateful for what they've done for me - Pat Gillick and Charlie Manuel and even Ruben [Amaro Jr.]. . . .
"I don't want to be sitting here and blowing smoke or anything like that, but I love the Phillies, I love Philadelphia, I love playing there, I love my teammates, and again, I'm just focused on the task at hand."
He conceded that the team's budget constraints might impact his future.
"I know that how much they're spending is an issue," he said. "I definitely think that will play a part of it going forward, but that's something my agent and the team will work out. But hopefully, it will work out and I'll be in Philadelphia for a long time."
"I'm already a part of something special here, and have been for the past few years," he said. "To continue that would be awesome. It's just, going forward, we're going to have to see what works."
Though the Phils have about $130 million committed to 15 players in 2011, the payroll could plummet after that, possibly allowing room to retain Werth on a backloaded contract.
Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Brad Lidge, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson, and Raul Ibanez are just some of the players whose contracts will expire after the 2011 season.
Amaro would not say yesterday whether that would create more flexibility to commit to Werth.
"That will be an individual decision based on how he plays this season," the general manager said. "It's too early to get specific about that."
Werth's message yesterday was similarly noncommittal. While declining to discuss his future in detail, he was clearly happy and confident after a breakthrough year.
"The type of season I put up last year, I always knew I had that in me," he said. "And going forward, I think I have many years like that. Right now, I'm in Philadelphia for 2010. We've got an unbelievable team and an unbelievable clubhouse."
The Inquirer's Phillies blog, The Phillies Zone, by Andy Martino and Matt Gelb, plus see photos
and video from Clearwater at www.philly.com/