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.
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