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Willingham Thinks He'll Play OF With Nats

I'm not a doctor, but I play one on the Internet, so today I spoke with Josh Willingham for quite a while about his lower back pain. Oh, we also chatted about his reaction to the Nov. 11 trade that sent him from Florida (along with Scott Olsen, in exchange for Emilio Bonifacio and two minor leaguers) and about what he expects his role to be with his new team. (He said he's "98 percent sure" that Washington intends to use him as a left fielder.)

I'll post the rest of our Q&A below, but in the meantime, let me pose a question: Let's assume, first of all, that Willingham can play a passable version of first base (and he says he can, though he's played it for a grand total of three innings in his big league career). Let's also assume that Washington goes through the offseason 0-for-Teixeira. Let's assume, too, that no other impact players join the 1B/OF equation. Which defensive alignment, then, would you prefer to see the Nats use at the start of spring training? Essentially, this is a referrendum on whether you prefer the Nats to pencil a starting spot for Austin Kearns or Nick Johnson.


1B -- Willingham
RF -- Kearns
CF -- Milledge
LF -- Dukes


1B -- Johnson
RF -- Dukes/Kearns
CF -- Milledge
LF -- Willingham

Q&A follows below...

Q: First things first. What was your reaction to the trade?

JW: Well, I was shocked, but I didn't know really what to make of it, to be honest with you. You went into this offseason knowing there would be moves made by the Florida front office, but you just don't know what. Especially if you're arbitration-eligible. So I knew it was possible, getting traded, but I actually didn't expect it at all for some reason. I was still shocked. It was more, 'Wow, though, this is weird.' I'd been with the same organization for nine years. Then everything goes through your head: Who on the Nationals do I know? Where are we going to live? What will my family think about this?

Q: Who do you know on Washington?

JW: I have had a chance to play with Aaron Boone, and that's about it. He played with us in '07 in Florida; great guy. That's the one guy I know, and I guess it's still up in the air whether he signs back.

Q: What else have you had to think about since the trade?

JW: We have been talking around, and we've found out that a lot of players live in the Arlington area. So we've found out about some areas on the Internet, just looking around. It seems a great place to live, probably more family friendly, and we have a 2-year-old so that's helpful.

Q: Have any time to do the touristy things in DC?

JW: Really, not really. As a (visiting) player, you come for three days. Come in, get there late, you have the games and then you get out. I've never had an off day in Washington or anything. Well, I've been there a couple times on tourist trips in, like, high school. I want to go to all the monuments, the Smithsonian, did all of that. And I'm sure that's stuff my family will want to do again when they come up.

Q: Any indication from Washington about where they'd like to have you playing?

JW: I think it's the outfield; I really do. I've played a lot of first base, not in the major leagues, but in the minors. But I'm pretty sure it's left field where I will be.

Q: You were a shortstop in high school?

JW: Yeah, and college. I'm about 225 pounds now, but when I was in high school, I weighed about 190, 195, and it was just - I could play it very well, but I wasn't gonna play it at the professional level. My range wasn't as good, I didn't have the arm. Shortstop is just a different position once you get to majors.

Q: From high school on up, you've at least experimented with every position on the diamond - except for center field. What's been the hardest new position to learn?

JW: That's an easy one. Catching. All the mental aspects and things, and the physical toll it takes on you. It's demanding especially when you start catching at 23. I was catching every day at Class AA for the first time, and it was tough on my body. It's not like I had been catching since I was eight or 10 years old. I had to have a knee surgery. That was the toughest position to learn. I had changed to catcher there basically because of the people [the organization] had in front of me. I was a good offensive player, but I was playing behind [Miguel] Cabrera at the same time and Adrian Gonzalez, and we were all playing in the same spot. So the thinking was, 'Well, if we keep these guys, where is this guy going to play?' I went to instructional league to learn, and next year I was catching.

Q: How long does it take from the time you first start playing a new position until the time when you develop a sense of comfort?

JW: I'd say a full season. The whole season in '06, my first in left field, I was learning different nuances about the whole position and fine tuning my skills. It's something you have to get out and play to learn. It's not like you can just study that, hey, when a right-hander hits it it'll do this, and when a left-hander hits it it'll do that. You have to see it.

Q: You've played, I believe, three total innings of first base in your career. Could you do that, if asked?

JW: Well, I'm comfortable in LF, I'm happy to say that. But yeah, I could, and being able to play other positions is important, especially if an injury occurs - or if later on in your career and you're not an everyday player anymore. At that stage, (versatility) gives a manger a lot more options and might help you stay around the game a lot longer. But right now left field is where I feel the best, and I feel 98 percent sure the Nats got me for that reason.

Q: I know you've been battling some back problems for quite a while now... What does that trace back to?

JW: I hurt my back when I was probably in college - well, wait, that's not true; it was my first or second year in pro ball when I was doing squats. Since then, the back has always acted up -- normally just a few days, and then be done. But in September '07 I missed the last 20-some games with a bad back, and then last year I got hurt and I just couldn't seem to get over it. It was like I came back too early (in July 2008), and then back to Square One. But most of times when my back tightens up, I won't miss 50 games. A week at the most. It's just certain times it tightens up and you have to take a little time off. But last year was by far the worst, but since I've come back I haven't had any problems, so I don't expect there to be any problems. I maybe should have missed 25 games last year, and just by being stubborn, pushing it, I probably doubled the time I missed.

Q: When the back pain is at its worst, what does it feel like?

Basically aggravating. It's a nerve in the back of your disk. I mean, it just takes a little time to calm down. It's just really restricting. Swinging a bat is out of question at those times. There have been times when I haven't been able to get out of bed for a day, but most of the time it just bothers me some and then it's gone. I mean, the plan is to strengthen it as much as possible, and it can strengthen itself. I'm doing all the core training. But I've got a herniated disk. It's manageable. But you just have to take some time off. I've seen multiple doctors; none think I need surgery, because I don't have the nerve symptoms that require it. It's not such a big deal, because even if I had the surgery it's a three-month recovery. But you never want to have surgery if you don't have to. If I had to say right now, I'd say I won't have any problems with it (in 2009).

Q: Is it just one of those things now where you're desperate to see what you can do if you get, say, 600 at bats?

JW: Yeah, I've never had 600, and part of it is because I walk a lot. But I've only had ... well, I missed 15 games in '06, and in '07 I played up until the last 20 games. But I think if I get 550 at bats, I'll have some pretty good numbers.

By Chico Harlan  |  November 24, 2008; 4:51 PM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Teixeira Watch, Day ... Whatever
Next: Minor Surgery For Redding


If Nick's healthy, then 2, only without Kearns, assuming (and I hate to assume, but under the circumstances, it seems pretty safe) Dmitri isn't back.

After he gets hurt, if Willingham isn't already out, too, or if J-Dub just isn't cutting it in the outfield, then it might be worth a shot, but I'd prefer they go get somebody for first, in that case.

Posted by: CEvansJr | November 24, 2008 5:01 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and Chico, did you hip him to the NJ?

Posted by: CEvansJr | November 24, 2008 5:06 PM | Report abuse

"But I've got a herniated disk. It's manageable. But you just have to take some time off. I've seen multiple doctors; none think I need surgery, because I don't have the nerve symptoms that require it. It's not such a big deal, because even if I had the surgery it's a three-month recovery. But you never want to have surgery if you don't have to. If I had to say right now, I'd say I won't have any problems with it (in 2009)."

I have a herniated disk, and when it flares up I can't swing a bat. Hmmmmm. Not being able to swing a bat for a week at a time would seem to be somewhat of a problem for a major league baseball player.

Three months to recover . . .December, January February.

Note to JimBo: Please make sure the arbitrator sees this!

Posted by: traderkirk | November 24, 2008 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Who else out there doesn't feel really confident in JW's ability to stay healthy all of '09 after reading that? Maybe I'm just being a bit skittish after watching every position player on the roster go down at some point in '08.

Posted by: ArlingtonNatsFan | November 24, 2008 5:23 PM | Report abuse

1B - Nick/JW/DY
LF - Milledge
RF - Dukes
CF - Bernadina
4th OF - JW
5th OF - WMP
6th OF - AK
7th OF - Casto

Wait a minute, why do we have so many OF/1B on the 40 man? ;^)

Just get Tex and get rid of 4 or 5 of the above.

Posted by: goexpos2 | November 24, 2008 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Have him play 1b AND all 3 outfield positions??
With all due respect to Texiera, he's no Willie Harris.

Wait a minute, why do we have so many OF/1B on the 40 man? ;^)
Just get Tex and get rid of 4 or 5 of the above.
Posted by: goexpos2 | November 24, 2008 5:35 PM

Posted by: CEvansJr | November 24, 2008 5:43 PM | Report abuse

Get Tex and get rid of DY, Casto, AK, and maybe NJ and/or WMP. Oh, and get Hudson! :^)

Have him play 1b AND all 3 outfield positions??
With all due respect to Texiera, he's no Willie Harris.

Posted by: goexpos2 | November 24, 2008 5:50 PM | Report abuse

OK, and by "get rid of" you mean send them out on a suicide mission to find the Lost Patrol? With the possible exception of Kearns, you're talking about just eating all those contracts, and the Nats have shown no interest in doing that sort of thing.

Posted by: CEvansJr | November 24, 2008 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Lost in a very loaded post was this gem. Good to have you back, Chico!


Let's also assume that Washington goes through the offseason 0-for-Teixeira.

Posted by: JohninMpls | November 24, 2008 6:12 PM | Report abuse

Trade Milledge for pitching....That will let Jimbo rathionalize an outfield of

Harris/Kearns in CF
Willingham in LF
Dukes in RF

Tex, Dunn, Johnson, Young in that order 1B

Posted by: JayBeee | November 24, 2008 6:17 PM | Report abuse

My vote: Scenario 2.
Kearns has earned a spot as a #4 outfielder, not a starter.
NJ is one of our best hitters when he's healthy. How great would it be if he actually could stay healthy for a year or two? Can't bank on it though, so it's good they're looking around for another First Baseman.
Willingham can start in left on my team, assuming no other deals are made.
Would be great to get someone else in center field (Willy Harris?) and package Milledge in a trade (not cuz I don't love him but b/c he is probably not what this team needs most and we might get some value in return).
I have a hunch Pena will come around, too, at least to his 2007 level, because his problems in 2008 were injury-related.
Dukes is the most promising bat on the team right now and (knock on wood) his persoanl problems are at bay. Still, we'll need some insurance until we see him walk the straight and narrow for a few years AND crush the ball off the wall every night.

Posted by: jdsp2000 | November 24, 2008 6:23 PM | Report abuse

Scenario #2.

If Johnson is healthy and still with the team, then he's obviously the better choice.

In the outfield, the more logical scenario is Willingham (LF), Dukes (CF), and let Milledge and Kearns compete for RF.

Posted by: AshburnVA | November 24, 2008 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Two reactions to this post:

1. Nick Johnson in a landslide. He's the best baseball player on the roster and far and away the best hitter. If he appears able to go, you have to start getting him his 217 at-bats. Kearns will get plenty of chance to play when Johnson fractures his coccyx.

2. Alexandria is much nicer than Arlington. To boot, there's a great house for sale two doors down from me. Willingham's 2-year-old could come over and play with mine.

Posted by: Scooter_ | November 24, 2008 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Just saw this on ESPN

WASHINGTON -- Nationals right-hander Tim Redding will have minor surgery on his left foot on Friday and is expected to be fully recovered by the start of spring training.

The operation will repair damage to the bone in the joint at the base of the second toe. It will be performed by Nationals medical director Dr. Wiemi Douoguih and foot and ankle specialist Dr. Lew Schon at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

Redding went 10-11 with a 4.95 ERA in 33 starts this year. He was the only Nationals pitcher to win at least 10 games.

Posted by: AshburnVA | November 24, 2008 6:31 PM | Report abuse

This is the kind of post I like. Gets us really talking.

And I can't believe this, but I agree with you JayB. Trade Milledge for pitching.

But I'd put Dukes in CF and keep Kearns in RF. (I just can't give up on Kearns yet)

Willingham at LF and Johnson at 1B. And when Nick gets hurt again, we'll just plug in our soon to be new and improved 210 lb Dmitri. (as long as we're dreaming, of course).

Posted by: NatsNut | November 24, 2008 7:27 PM | Report abuse

Easily, the best choice is scenario #2, given the current roster. That would give the Nats' the following:
1B) Slick, then Willingham, with Casto at AAA, and DaMeat getting healthy & WMP learning 1B in Viera.
OF) Willingham in Left, Milledge in Center, Kearns in Right, with Dukes and Harris standing in reserve; Bernardina starts the year at AAA. If FA signings or trades occur, all bets are off.

Posted by: BinM | November 24, 2008 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Oops, forgot Whitney at 1B(AAA), and Davis / Langerhans flanking Bernardina in AAA as well; Casto becomes a Utility player (1B-3B-LF-RF) at the AAA level.

Posted by: BinM | November 24, 2008 7:41 PM | Report abuse

Why is Dukes not starting is center next year...I thought he was going to be given a chance to play center next spring with Milledge in left or right (or traded)?

Posted by: mdb280 | November 24, 2008 7:45 PM | Report abuse

mdb: Dukes may get the chance at Center in ST, but unless the Nats' can move Milledge for pitching (as JayB has suggested), that's where he currently projects. God knows, I'd love to see his bat in the lineup everyday in the #6-7 slot, but based on current realities, it is what it is.

Posted by: BinM | November 24, 2008 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Dukes is the best power hitter on the team. How can some of you have him platooning or on the bench?

Posted by: BillyBeane | November 24, 2008 8:08 PM | Report abuse

If Johnson plays 25 games he will likely surpass any production Kearns would provide in 120 games. So my input to the referendum is to s-can Kearns!

Posted by: cabraman | November 24, 2008 8:13 PM | Report abuse

The correct answer:

LF Willingham
CF Milledge
RF Dukes
3B Zimmerman
SS Guzman
2B Belliard
1B Johnson
C Flores

And then sign a SP or 2 with the Tex money.

Posted by: sbiel2 | November 24, 2008 8:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm with BillyBeane on this one. Given the roster as it currently stands, and what we've seen from the players to date, not penciling Elijah Dukes into your regular lineup is sheer folly.

And although I'm a big fan of Lastings Milledge, I'm prepared to see anybody be traded if it helps the ball club.

Posted by: Scooter_ | November 24, 2008 8:36 PM | Report abuse

Current Nationals' 25 / 40-man roster (pre-Winter Meetings / Rule V draft:
C) Flores, Nieves; Montz(AAA). [2/1]
1B) Johnson; Whitney(AAA). [1/1]
2B) Hernandez, Belliard. [2/0]
3B) R.Zimmerman; Casto(AAA). [1/1]
SS) Guzman, Gonzalez; Diamond(AAA). [2/1]
LF) Willingham, Harris; Davis(AAA), Pena(exST). [2/2]
CF) Milledge; Bernardina(AAA). [1/1]
RF) Kearns, Dukes; Maxwell(AAA). [2/1]
13 players on 25-man, 21 on 40-man roster.

SP) Olsen, Redding, Lannan, Balestar, Bergmann; Hill(60-DL), Clippard(AAA), Detwiler(AA), Atilano(AA). [5/3]
RP) Estrada, Mock, Shell, O'Conner, Rivera, Hinckley, Hanrahan; Chico(60-DL), Martis(AAA). [7/2]
12 pitchers on 25-man, 17 on 40-man roster.

Posted by: BinM | November 24, 2008 8:40 PM | Report abuse

sbiel2: I'd quibble on two points - 1) Belliard is a utility player at this point (albeit a very good one), but he sacrifices defensive range for his bat - got to go with Hernandez as the starter. 2) Kearns is contracted for too much $$$ to be a #4OF on this club - Hope he comes up big in ST & draws some interest.

Posted by: BinM | November 24, 2008 8:56 PM | Report abuse

My bad - My 25/40-man roster should have totalled 13/21 players & 12/16 pitchers (I had Hill & Chico on 60-DL); 37 total, not 38.

Posted by: BinM | November 24, 2008 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of Dukes. He still has not proven to be someone the team can count on. I'm not referring to any personal issues. The fact is that he may be just as injury prone as our boy Nick. IFFFFFF both Elijah and Nick could play 140+ games each, the Nats offense could be pretty nice.

Posted by: DoctorJoe | November 24, 2008 9:44 PM | Report abuse

If Nick is healthy, Nick plays. Barring a major acquisition who we don't yet know about. There are so many ways they can move the parts around, no point in rehashing guesses.

On the rule 5 front, one more name on the MLBTR list that looks very interesting is Eduardo Morlan. He was the 3d player to go the Rays along with Bartlett and Garza. Thought to be a potential closer at this time last year. He AA stats weren't bad (3.64 ERA, a WHIP around 1.25, and a 3:1 45K/15BB in 47 innings), and he'll be 23 this spring. Fly ball pitcher (2:1). Why not on the 40 man? Rays are stacked with prospect arms.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | November 24, 2008 10:28 PM | Report abuse

Doctor Joe,
Seems EVERYONE was injury prone this year. Had to be a fluke. My money's on Dukes being okay physically.

Posted by: NatsNut | November 24, 2008 10:57 PM | Report abuse

Of course, the "New Post" convention is really only useful when there's lots of traffic here.

Posted by: CEvansJr | November 24, 2008 11:51 PM | Report abuse

It's unanimous. We love Nicky. And, no one really wants to see that much more of Kearns. If Nicky is healthy, it would be crazy not to play him. I don't care how many home runs Willingham hits. He doesn't being the defense or the OBA that Johnson does. If you put enough good bats around him, Johnson will produce more runs, even without hitting that many home runs. If he's not healthy, we still have Dmitri. And, Boone might want to come back...

Posted by: fischy | November 25, 2008 12:59 AM | Report abuse

It's crazy to play NJ when WE KNOW he can't make it a full season, he's basically missed his prime, this team needs to move on.
Kearns has also proven he can't be an every day player - but a great 4th OF.
What's all this Milledge-for-pitching trade talk? He's a 24 year old outfielder with range, speed, and power and for most of last season was the best hitter on the team. I don't see him long term in center but he'd be a plus defensive LF. Willy Harris, WMP, Kearns - there is a reason they are all at, near, or over 30 and have never cracked a contending roster - so why would they be solutions for the Nats?

Posted by: ajtrue78 | November 25, 2008 3:32 AM | Report abuse

Exactly ajtrue. You do not trade Milledge. He's 23 and a potential star. He's a part of Nat's present and future.
And while I'm on it, why does Martis, a twenty-one year old who has already pitched a couple of good games in the majors, appear so underrated by the team and fans alike. Just wondering. I really like him.

Posted by: jcampbell1 | November 25, 2008 6:57 AM | Report abuse

>And while I'm on it, why does Martis, a twenty-one year old who has already pitched a couple of good games in the majors, appear so underrated by the team and fans alike. Just wondering. I really like him.<

He has trouble finding the strike zone sometimes, and he does what a lot of young hard throwers do - he tries to miss the bat. Once he develops another pitch, and throws to contact, then he'll be a major league pitcher.

Posted by: Brue | November 25, 2008 7:12 AM | Report abuse

>Speaking of Dukes. He still has not proven to be someone the team can count on.<

You have to be able to project someone's ability. You don't just say 'he did this last year and he'll do it again next year', because it almost never works out that way. If the extent of his injuries are muscle pulls, and the occasional knee-tweak, there's not much to worry about on the injury front with him. If he had a chronic situation where he injured the same part of his body through repetitive strain, then it would be a problem.

Posted by: Brue | November 25, 2008 7:15 AM | Report abuse

>You do not trade Milledge. He's 23 and a potential star. He's a part of Nat's present and future.<

Milledge is far from untouchable. They will forever be sacrificing something with him in the lineup, whether it's his arm, or the average power he possesses. He doesn't have a position, and they'll perpetually be trying to find him one as long as he's here. Isn't that the discussion, where to put him? Like I said, if you put him at 2nd base, the Nats start to look more like the Phillies, but they can't advance a level until they think outside of the box. What if Orlando Hudson gets signed by someone else? Seems like all the eggs are in one basket on that.

Posted by: Brue | November 25, 2008 7:20 AM | Report abuse

A lot of good points here but, for all the debate, one thing is crystallized by the comments on this post. The Nationals, as they are right now, are in an unworkable position. Kearns/Milledge/Dukes did not work for us last year because Kearns simply does not produce enough runs for a corner outfielder. And the second scenario has Johnson at 1st. This is simply not something the Nat's can plan for because if we do when he gets injured again we will be in the same position we were last year.

Quite simply the 'if no one else comes in game' throws up only one scenario worth thinking about: It really doesn't matter what we plan for, it will simply illustrate that upper management has no problem risking another 100 loss season to save money for a hypothetical 'next year'.

Posted by: soundbloke | November 25, 2008 8:12 AM | Report abuse

I prefer scenario #2 with an outfield of JW/LM/ED. However, this team is far from the end of its wheeling and dealing... so standby...

Posted by: Keenan1 | November 25, 2008 8:23 AM | Report abuse

I love Kearns' work ethic, and he sounds like he is a great guy to have in the locker room, BUT...

1B - Johnson (if healthy)
LF - Willingham
CF - Milledge
RF - Dukes

Johnson is the best hitter on the club as long as he is healthy (which has only been 2006), so I would love to see him come back to form.

At the same time, if we could put either Tex or Dunn at 1B then I am happy with that too. Kearns & Johnson are two of my favorite players, but you can only give them so many chances.

Posted by: Sec_319 | November 25, 2008 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Could we have an option without Kearns?

Posted by: boc772000 | November 25, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse

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