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Jayson Werth performed well during his September stint in center field.
Yes, the Nationals appear to be setting the stage for Jayson Werth to slide over to center field, a move that will be made more out of necessity than anything: Bryce Harper will almost certainly play right field when he's promoted, and Michael Morse is set to open the year in left field, leaving Werth with nowhere to go but center.
That said, the Nationals wouldn't do this if they didn't have some level of confidence in Werth's ability to roam the biggest part of the outfield.
"We know Jayson can handle the center field position," GM Mike Rizzo told XM Radio last week. "It's not a perfect world for us. He's a good defender out there and is ready, willing and able to take on the responsibility to play center field. We recognize that we need a true gliding, defensive, rangy center fielder out there in a perfect world."
Werth may not look the part of the prototypical center fielder, but he's actually proven quite adept when asked to the play the position in the past.
"He loves center field," manager Davey Johnson said at last month's Winter Meetings. "He feels more comfortable there for some reason."
Truth be told, Werth at times last season did appear more comfortable in center field than in right field, where on a handful of occasions he seemed to get bad reads on balls hit either in front of him or over his head. He didn't see a whole lot of action in center field (151 2/3 innings over 19 games, as opposed to 1,172 2/3 innings over 134 games in right field) but he looked perfectly at ease when tracking down balls hit to any direction.
And advanced defensive metrics suggest Werth can be a very capable center fielder if asked to play the position for an entire season. Over his career, he's seen 877 innings of action in center field, during which time he's compiled a respectable UZR/150 rating of 5.3.
(For the uninitiated, or just the confused: UZR/150 stands for ultimate zone rate over 150 games. It calculates how many runs above or below average a fielder is over a 150-game season. So by this measurement, Werth is considered an above-average center fielder for his career, though not by a huge margin.)
How do those numbers compare to Werth in right field? They're not as good, but the difference isn't huge. Over a career spanning 5,293 2/3 innings in right field, Werth's UZR/150 is 7.7. Again, better than center field, but not by leaps and bounds.
Breaking it down into more specific metrics, Werth actually is shown to have better range in center field than right field. The effectiveness of his throwing arm, however, decreases significantly when he moves to center field.
So what's the end result? Well, as Rizzo points out, the Nationals ideally would prefer a traditional center fielder who can track down anything hit in the general vicinity while also possessing a killer arm.
But short of somebody like that falling into their laps, they're perfectly content to go with Werth in the short-term, then go shopping again next winter when the projected free agent class includes Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino and perhaps Curtis Granderson.