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Trade Analysis: A Steal For the Nats

Last night, the Nationals reportedly acquired outfielder Josh Willingham and lefty Scott Olsen from the Florida Marlins for second baseman Emilio Bonifacio and two mid-level prospects--right-handed pitcher P.J. Dean and infielder Josh Smolinski. Here are three reasons I love the trade:

1.Olsen is only 24 (he'll turn 25 in January), and could be on the verge of a breakout. Most pitchers, particularly lefties, don't start to "figure it out" until their mid-20s. Erik Bedard hadn't made a single big-league start before his 25th birthday. Joe Saunders had made only two. Olsen, on the other hand, has already made 101 starts, and while his 31-37 record and 4.63 ERA are not much to look at, at the same age Bedard and Saunders were essentially still prospects.

A more precise comparison might be Oliver Perez, like Olsen a power lefty who broke into the majors at an early age. Through the 2006 season (he turned 25 in August of that year), Perez was 30-43 with a 4.67 ERA--very similar to Olsen's numbers. But the following year, he went 15-10 with a 3.56 ERA.

At the very least, Olsen should be a league-average lefty good for 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings--a highly underappreciated asset in today's game. (Just look at how valuable Odalis Perez was for the Nats last year.) And at best, he could be a breakout star whom the Nats have under their control for the next three years.

My prediction: After an excellent spring, Olsen is the Nats' Opening Day starter next April.

2. Willingham has power and can play first base. Over the past three seasons, Willingham has averaged a homer every 22.16 at-bats, which is in roughly the same territory as Justin Morneau (one per 20.51), Torii Hunter (21.35), Grady Sizemore (22.55), Adrian Beltre (23.30), Hanley Ramirez (23.56) and Aubrey Huff (23.56). Obviously, some of them are far better players than Willingham, but his power is significant, and that is the one commodity the Nationals need above all else. (Incidentally, for comparison's sake, Ryan Zimmerman averaged a homer every 29.22 at-bats during those three seasons.)

For his career, Willingham has posted a 117 OPS+ (adjusted for league and park effects, with 100 representing league-average). How many full-time Nationals hitters (min. 300 ABs) reached that figure last year? Zero.

The key, obviously, is keeping Willingham on the field--and back injuries, such as the one that plagued him last season, are notoriously tricky. But it is worth the risk, because...

While Willingham is considered a corner outfielder, he played 59 games at first base in the minor leagues and started twice at the position for the Marlins in 2006. It is not out of the question--particularly given the glut of corner outfielders the Nationals now possess--that Willingham will be their Opening Day first baseman come April.

3. The Nats didn't give up any essential pieces. I never bought the notion that Emilio Bonifacio was their "second baseman of the future," as Jim Bowden touted. Scouts told me at the time he projected as a utility player. (And apparently, that's what he'll be in Florida, unless they trade veteran second baseman Dan Uggla.) He also became expendable when the Nats acquired Anderson Hernandez.

Meantime, Dean and Smolinski are both intriguing prospects, but neither were rated among the Nationals' top 10 by Baseball America entering this season. Smolinski is the better of the two, but he is coming off major knee surgery and already possessed questionable range -- which is one reason the Nationals moved him from shortstop to second base in 2007.

By Dave Sheinin  |  November 11, 2008; 9:41 AM ET
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Next: Update: The Deal Is Official


Great break down of the trade but, and I hate to harp on this, why would we put Willingham at 1st base when we he is a clear upgrade to Kearns at the plate? If Nick Johnson goes down with an injury again, then maybe we we move Willingham over to 1B and use a platoon of Kearns/Harris in the OF. I'm still not sold, though, that Washington won't try and land Prince Fielder or Mark Teixiera, and if they do that, I'm all in with this squad.

Posted by: Imjustlikemusiq | November 11, 2008 9:54 AM | Report abuse


Thanks for the timely post - good stuff in here. This is exactly what this blog can and should be - the sorts of details there's simply no room for in the sports pages. I'll need stuff like this to keep me going until February!

Posted by: dclawyer2 | November 11, 2008 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Awesome info on Willingham. I too agree he belongs as the starting RF making Kearns the 4th OF. Still need a power bat at 1B.

Posted by: RicketyCricket | November 11, 2008 9:59 AM | Report abuse

If signing Adam Dunn pushes Willingham to 1B I wouldn't shed any tears.

Posted by: RicketyCricket | November 11, 2008 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Could not agree more Chico. Even if Olsen does not "figure it out" in some Bedard type way, he is at worst a league average innings-eater, which is actaully something hard to come by these days. The Willingham bad back drama is a bit overblown and he brings much needed power and position flexibility to the team. Nats gave up very little to get these guys. And the Nats are better today than they were on Monday. Nice move by Bowden and his staff.

Posted by: dfh2 | November 11, 2008 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Why does everyone keep putting Willingham in RF? Our opening day outfield will be Willingham (LF),Milledge (CF) and Dukes (RF). I do agree with Dave and posted it on last nights thread that Olsen will be our No.1

Posted by: Keenan1 | November 11, 2008 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I like the trade, the Nats didn't seem to give up too much, but I temper my enthusiasm for the trade for two reasons: 1. injured players have not held up well for the Nats and thus I am concerned about the back injury. 2. I worry that Willingham will be the only "bat" the Nats add to the roster.

Posted by: cabraman | November 11, 2008 10:17 AM | Report abuse

I'm in the TSTT camp as of now. I have a feeling that other moves are going to be made. I worry about the back of Willingham and the issues that Olsen brings, but Dukes did good things overall once traded.

Ah, the hot stove league...where hope springs eternal...

Posted by: TimDz | November 11, 2008 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Keenan1, I think there may be some shuffling in the outfield, regardless of the new additions to the team. For instance, an outfield of Milledge (LF), Dukes (CF), and Willingham (RF) would be defensively stronger than one with Milledge in center. Depending on how Milledge plays in spring training, this very well may be a change that we see made. If Milledge wants to prove that he can be a legitimate CF in the big leagues, he needs to continue to improve his ball skills and eliminate the mental errors in the field. Otherwise, his fielding skill set is simply more suited to left field.

Posted by: faNATic | November 11, 2008 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Granted, this was Summer 2007, but it makes you wonder if Bowden LOOKS for such personalities...

Posted by: TimDz | November 11, 2008 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Dave: respectfully, you are absolutely completely on drugs in your evaluation of Scott Olsen. Just totally, completely out to lunch.

Posted by: sbiel2 | November 11, 2008 10:26 AM | Report abuse

I too never bought into the notion that Emilio Bonifacio was the future at second base. He simply couldn't hit major league pitching consistently. He looked to be a backup infielder and spot starter. I thought that the time that the Nationals got less value from Arizona for Rauch than if they had traded him to Boston or the Dodgers.

Willingham may be able to play first base but if he is healthy you would have to think he will supplant Austin Kearns in RF.

Ideally the Nats need to move Dukes to CF and move Milledge to LF.

Dukes is capable of 30 HR in a full season. Milledge looks to be capable of 20. Willingham had 26 a couple of years ago in Florida.

Posted by: leopard09 | November 11, 2008 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Disliking the deal is fine. Your "on drugs" comment is uncalled for.

Posted by: Brian_ | November 11, 2008 10:35 AM | Report abuse

LOVE this trade. Dean was unhittable in 2008 but it was short-A. Smolinksi has promise but again was in short-A all year. Bonifacio is one of 4-5 servicable 2nd basemen we had and showed he wasn't as promising as Hernandez or Gonzalez.

According to message boards down in Miami, the reaction seems to be mixed to this trade. Apparently the Marlins have enough pitching depth that Olsen may not have made their rotation next year. And they need a better defensive 2nd baseman (which means Uggla may be traded soon as well). But some fans are downright outraged at the trade, thinking they didn't need to give up both Olsen and Willingham to get what they got.

Posted by: tboss | November 11, 2008 10:40 AM | Report abuse

While I like the trade, my main concern with Willingham playing first base, or playing anywhere is his defense. We're starting to put together a pretty poor fielding team. I understand the need for someone, anyone, who can hit for power. But Willingham at first base is a huge liability and he's a big dropoff in the outfield from Kearns' fielding. I'm not advocating for Kearns, he's been awful. But An outfield of Willingham, Dukes, and Milledge in center is a bad fielding outfield. We just seem to be such a confused team as to what we want. However, in the end, any upgrade is a welcome upgrade, so it was a fine deal.

Posted by: drobins7 | November 11, 2008 10:44 AM | Report abuse

This is a good deal. I think Kearns has had eneough time to display his talent, it it has been lacking. While he is a good fielder, his bat has been silent. Willingham should be able to find a spot in either right or left. Olsen will be a welcome addition and should easily fit in this rotation towards the top. This probably improves the team by 5 to 10 wins.

Posted by: cokedispatch | November 11, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Hey, BobLHead, be careful what you wish for, you may get it - this looks like the start of the merged Nats and Marlins that you were suggesting a week or so ago. Now, how do we get Hanley Ramirez...

Posted by: Traveler8 | November 11, 2008 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Trade seems decent, but it is hard to get excited about a team that has shown no willingness to spend money and that make excuses every time you turn around.

Posted by: mriordan123 | November 11, 2008 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I have to agree with drobins here. We seem to veer uncontrollably between baseballing philosophies more than any club in the majors. We kept filling our outfield with defensive strike out merchants, then decide that the while the defence is damaging our pitching we need to sign sign bat's that can't defend. We get frustrated that our infield cann't defend, and sign several defensive speedsters only to flip them. The managements tactics are starting to border on incoherent.

Personally I don't really like this trade. Given our recent plan to have great defence, and given Emilio's OBP improvement I think that we should have held on to him and moved Guzman. There are no shortstops available on the market right now, and that would have given us a lot of leverage. Hernandez would be a fine starting shortstop, and Bonafacio too could play there.

This deal seems rushed, and it seems to reinforce the impression that we just make whatever deal come along without thinking about the make-up and future of the organisation.

Posted by: soundbloke | November 11, 2008 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Olsen is young and I have hope that he'll improve, but you have to be worried about the fact that his Ks have been going down every year. And his k:bb last year was 1.6 (and 1.8 for his career). If his velocity is back into the mid 90s, as it apparently was in september, and not the high 80s like it was for the rest of the year, he'll be fine. If not he won't be any better than anyone else we could throw out there. Though 200 innings will certainly help...

Willingham will hopefully play in the OF and not 1st. I find it hilarious that his most similar batter/most similar through age 29/most similar by age is...Ryan Church. I hope this version of Church hits the curveball better.

Posted by: WrongDog | November 11, 2008 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Bottom line is that I need to see a coherent plan for the Nats, and I don't see one. Bowden loves to make deals, too much. He was trying to acquire Bonifacio for a year and a half, then finally got him and turns around and deals him a month later. Are we trying to be a team that slugs? Or are we trying to become a speedy, defensive team? It seemed like with Bonifacio, we were going the speedy route, which I kinda liked. Now we're trying to add sluggers, which is fine, but its at the expense of our speed and defense. If we go out and sign Dunn or Teixera, this deal makes a little more sense but I don't think that's going to happen. I'm tired of Washington Post writers being so fluffy about the Nats and not doing genuine reporting on what their problems are. In the rare moments that you read about the Nats outside of the DC area, sports reporters lay out a number of fundamental problems about this team. I don't see that with the Post. They didn't start talking about the Lerners' mismanagement until it was pretty much known by everyone who follows them. The Post is becoming the Nats PR agency, which is really making the team worse off. If these writers got tougher, then there would be more pressure on our team to get their stuff together and produce a competitive team. Finally, to go back to the deal, its not a "bad" deal, but it's just a strange one and typical of a totally discombobulated organization that doesn't know what it wants.

Posted by: drobins7 | November 11, 2008 11:19 AM | Report abuse

I have a new poll questions for the Constituency:

The first person to suggest the possibility of Willingham at 1st was

a) Dave Sheinin
b) John in Mpls

Posted by: JohninMpls | November 11, 2008 11:20 AM | Report abuse

all the talk about Olsen's mental make-up misses the point that he's not a good pitcher. Velocity, stuff, K rates--all the things you look at, he's just not very good. He had a fluky good rookie year 2006, but all his time in the minors before that and everything we've seen of him since shows that he just can't get big league hitters out.

Sorry if "on drugs" is over the line harsh--I think that's a pretty common expression among the kids these days--but really Olsenmania is completely out of control. Any statistical analysis shows this guys's somewhere in the Darrell Rasner / Jason Bergmann class of fringey 5th starters--at BEST. There's just no evidence to support what Sheinen is saying.

Posted by: sbiel2 | November 11, 2008 11:26 AM | Report abuse

But I kid. I'm not sure if Dave's right about Olsen, but I defer to his knowledge. At the very least, he's a lefty who can give the Nats some innings.

One thing that is interesting about this move is that there's not a ridiculous salary component to consider. Which pretty much allows all the crazy Tex talk to continue unchecked.

It also gives the Nats some extra pieces that may constitute a deal. Whether it be Johnson, Kearns, or a pitcher remains to be seen. The deal was also done with any major prospects, which also leaves open the possibility of future trades.

It also seems to solidify Hernandez's position as the starting 2B. This might give us yet another extra piece in Belliard. With the AG as a multi-position backup, Belly could be dealt as well.

Seriously, how nice would it be if Olsen was the number 2 starter, leaving Hill (remember him?), Lannan, Balester, Bergmann, Martis, Zimmermann, et al to compete for the remaining slots?

This shouldn't be over.

Posted by: JohninMpls | November 11, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

But Sheinin's argument is predicated on youth. He may not have overwhelmed in his three seasons in the majors, but neither did his comparables.

I'm not saying I disagree with you. It might not work. But given what the Nats gave up, I think it's fair risk/reward.

It also gives us the chance at the all-lefty lineup. Olsen, Lanna, Chico, Detwiler, Smoker!


Any statistical analysis shows this guys's somewhere in the Darrell Rasner / Jason Bergmann class of fringey 5th starters--at BEST. There's just no evidence to support what Sheinen is saying.

Posted by: JohninMpls | November 11, 2008 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Lannan, rather.

Posted by: JohninMpls | November 11, 2008 11:37 AM | Report abuse

definitely an improvement to the offense and the pitching corp.

nobody lasts 200 innings a year unless they can get hitters out. 25 year old lefty starter with 3 full seasons in the bigs sounds good to me. i don't think we are seeing anybody going crazy in here over the upside. he just needs to minimize the BBs and let our defense get to work. we don't need 200 ks. it's a solid move.

Posted by: longterm | November 11, 2008 11:40 AM | Report abuse

JohninMpls - I suggested something similar to the "extra pieces" argument in the previous thread. I just have a hard time seeing other teams interested in Johnson or Kearns. I think the most valuable of our "logjam" commodities in the OF/IB area may just be the guy they just acquired. Perhaps they're stockpiling for a run at Fielder.

Posted by: RicketyCricket | November 11, 2008 11:41 AM | Report abuse

"Any statistical analysis shows this guys's somewhere in the Darrell Rasner / Jason Bergmann class of fringey 5th starters--at BEST. Posted by: sbiel2 | November 11, 2008 11:26 AM "

Aren't you the same guy who's constantly arguing over on his blog to the effect that Jason Bergmann would be an All Star caliber pitcher if only the Nats would quit jerking him around from the majors to the minors and from the rotation to the bullpen? If they don't jerk Olsen around like they have Bergmann, wouldn't you then have to agree that Olsen might turn into something special?

Posted by: nunof1 | November 11, 2008 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Dave on the trade, but I'm expecting that Texiera or Dunn are going to be signed within the next week or so to play first base. Fox reports that the Nats have offered $200 million for 10 years for Tex and are frontrunners to sign him. Just maybe.

Nevertheless, we had a glut of light hitting speedy infielders, and Bonifacio's stock fell fast here when it looked apparent that he couldn't hit left handed. We got quite a bit for not much. Good trade.

Also good post by Dave. Thank you. There have been far fewer posts such as this since Barry left the beat.

Posted by: raymitten | November 11, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I saw enough of Olsen last year to know that I'd rather have him pitching for the Nats than against em (3-1, 3.41 ERA). But I am also in the camp that this move is only a prelude to another, so I'm going to take a wait and see until the other shoe drops.

Posted by: mjhoya12 | November 11, 2008 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Move Guzman?? Yikes.

Posted by: dfh2 | November 11, 2008 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Great analysis! Over at the Nationals Review they point out that Olsen has some velocity issues but seemed to recover. A LHP throwing 95 would be amazing. Also, if Johnson CAN play, this may spell the end of the 2 year Austin Kearns debacle...

Posted by: CharlieF | November 11, 2008 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Both the people we trade and the ones we acquire seem to end up journeyman. My skepticism on this trade lies in the fact the Marlins have an awful good track record of recognizing and developing young talent and rarely make bad trades. Nats trades always seem to blow up in their face. That said -- what the Nat's gave up seems far less than what they got.

Posted by: skepticnat | November 11, 2008 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Bottom line: We just got two major league regulars for three guys that are unlikely to become major league regulars. You can quibble with some things about this trade (e.g., it seems clear that we got zippo for Rauch, we have a glut of outfielders, two of whom are average-to-below-average fielders, etc.) but I don't think you can credibly argue that we didn't get the better of the deal.

The key question for us Planistas, though, is whether either of the new guys constitutes a piece of our 2012 contender. Willingham, maybe as a bench player. Olsen? It's possible. I'm optimistic.

And I don't think we're done dealing.

Posted by: BobLHead | November 11, 2008 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I like the trade - Olson is an inning-eating LHSP, and an upgrade from Od. Perez. Willingham brings some pop, fields his position decently (lacks range), and pushes Kearns to step up if he wants his job. Granted, we gave up three very young players, but Dean is the only player I might regret losing later.
There will be salary ramifications with this trade, as both Olson & Willingham are in their Arbitration-eligible period. Get'em signed for 2009, and let's see how it plays out for the future.

Posted by: BinM | November 11, 2008 12:57 PM | Report abuse

If we stand pat at this point I will not be happy, but I really like this move.

First question for JimBow at the presser today is, Do You Believe Willingham Can Play First Base if/when Nick Johnson is Hurt?

I love getting Olsen, I honestly think this was the deal and we almost got Willingham thrown in to clear money and roster space for FLA.

I'm all for signing Texiera if we can, but I'm not counting on it - in the mean time I expect to see Belliard moved, maybe as a package with Kearns, Willingham or Millege. I think WMP has through the end of ST to show he's "back" or it's the Dmitri Young treatment to AAA Syracuse. Ditto that for Shawn Hill, if he can't show he's healthy it's the Patterson treatment for him and Jordan Zimmermann is likely in as our 5th starter (Redding, Olsen, Lannan, Balester the other 4, in no order).

I would also expect to see Tim Redding traded at the deadline next year if he has a decent first half again, the potential drafting and signing of Strasburg would make him expendable. Maybe they won't even wait for ST with Redding, but his value is down a bit after his 2nd half and he has legitimate value to us as insurance and mentor for our younger guys.

Posted by: estuartj | November 11, 2008 1:00 PM | Report abuse

On their own, I don't see a team biting, either, Rickety. But in a package, it could happen.

Heck, it may have to happen. Lots of extra pieces.


I just have a hard time seeing other teams interested in Johnson or Kearns.

Posted by: JohninMpls | November 11, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

I think Kearns still has some value, his obp isn't terrible and he's a plus defender. In a small ballpark he might re-find his power so maybe someone like Texas or Philly (I'm suggesting ballparks, not teams). If we were willing to eat park of his salary he could be very movable, and don't laugh at that statement, even if the Lerner's ARE cheap would you rather pay 4.5 mil for Kearns to go away or 9.0 mil for his to ride the pine?

Posted by: estuartj | November 11, 2008 1:09 PM | Report abuse

new post.

Posted by: estuartj | November 11, 2008 1:12 PM | Report abuse

The downside to the recent roster moves is that there may no longer be a roster spot available for another fan favorite, Willie Harris. With an OF already filled with Milledge-Dukes-Willingham-Kearns, and Bernadina-Maxwell-Casto-Pena in reserve, he wouldn't be an "everyday" player here, which is what he wants.
The possibility remains that they could convince him that he'd become our version of Chone Figgins (super-utility player with the Angels), but that's the best the Nationals may be able to offer.

Posted by: BinM | November 11, 2008 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Just more of the same. Crap in and crap out. Posters who like the trade like it because the Nats didn't give up much. Besides the fact that they can't give up too much because they don't have too much, they did not get too much in return either. My ticket purchases are on hold until they commit to putting a competitive team on the field.

Posted by: willgiery | November 11, 2008 4:35 PM | Report abuse

Olsen for the three guys is worth it, but betting an a head case like Olsen to become even Bedard is a stretch. Another of Bowden's reclamation projects of head cases - pretty soon it will be the Lerner Museum of Egos instead of a ballclub. Willingham is, when healthy, a fine extra part if you are contending - he is not an everyday answer.

Posted by: noahhirsch | November 11, 2008 6:54 PM | Report abuse

Larry Beinfest is one of the shrewdest GMs in MLB. Bowden isn't. It looks like a steal for the Nats, but given the parties involved, I'll wait and see.

Posted by: gbooksdc | November 11, 2008 7:02 PM | Report abuse

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