Werth cashes in

Free agent outfielder Jayson Werth and the Washington Nationals reached a megadeal Sunday, a startling US$126 million, seven-year contract that seemed to catch most everyone by surprise at baseball’s winter meetings.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Free agent outfielder Jayson Werth and the Washington Nationals reached a megadeal Sunday, a startling US$126 million, seven-year contract that seemed to catch most everyone by surprise at baseball’s winter meetings.

The ballroom where deals are announced wasn’t even set up when agent Scott Boras and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo walked in. So they stood in a corner while workers prepared the lights, podium microphone and Major League Baseball backdrop.

“I didn’t know until a few hours ago,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman admitted.

“It all happened very quietly.”

While the Red Sox called a news conference for Monday morning, with expectations they’ll formalize the Adrian Gonzalez-to-Boston trade, the last-place Nationals made quite an early splash.

Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford figure to draw lots of attention later this week and another big name is sure to stir discussion, too: George Steinbrenner, on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time.

The Nationals got Werth, the 31-year-old all-star right fielder from Philadelphia, just days after slugger Adam Dunn left for the Chicago White Sox.

“To just spend money wildly on people is not the point. What we’re going to do is create an atmosphere … of winning,” Werth said on a conference call.

Werth hit .296 with 27 home runs, an NL-leading 46 doubles, 85 RBIs and a career-best 106 runs last season. He parlayed that into a deal astounding for its sheer size — both in terms of dollars and years.

“It’s a long time and a lot of money,” New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson quipped. “I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington.”

The road from the Orlando airport to the meetings site passes under a Disney World archway that proclaims “Where Dreams Come True” and many clubs are hoping to get a head start on success in 2011.

As teams and agents started talking, the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee was set to release its voting results Monday morning. Steinbrenner could become the newest member of the game’s Magic Kingdom.

“There’s very few owners in the history of baseball that changed baseball as much as he did,” Hank Steinbrenner, son of the late New York Yankees owner, recently offered.

“He did a lot, but the biggest thing of all was really the fact he brought back the Yankees and that’s so critical to baseball.”

Already, it’s been an active off-season. Dunn, Miguel Tejada, Lance Berkman and Javier Vazquez are among several free agents who have changed teams while Dan Uggla, Omar Infante and Clint Barmes have been traded.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, coming off a losing record after two playoff appearances, have made several moves. They signed free agent infielder Juan Uribe and traded infielder Ryan Theriot to St. Louis for reliever Blake Hawksworth.

“When you go 80-82, you have more time to get things done,” Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said shortly after landing Sunday at the Orlando airport.

As always, the Yankees figure to be on the prowl at this annual swap shop, especially after losing to the Rangers in the AL championship series.

The teams figure to tangle again for Lee, with New York trying to lure the prize pitcher on the free-agent market away from Texas. Lee’s decision could come this week.

Closer Rafael Soriano, sluggers Adrian Beltre, Paul Konerko and Magglio Ordonez and pitchers Carl Pavano, Kevin Millwood and Chris Young are part of the free-agent crop still in play.

The meetings typically produce trades. Last year, the big deal was a three-team swap that moved outfielder Curtis Granderson from Detroit to the Yankees.

Kansas City pitcher Zack Greinke’s name has been floated and so have those of the Upton brothers, Tampa Bay outfielder B.J. and Arizona outfielder Justin.

Back on the scene will be Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Cito Gaston and Lou Piniella. Major League Baseball will pay tribute in person to the four longtime managers who retired this year.

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