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Why the Nationals might trade Willingham

In the last couple of days, the buzz surrounding Nationals left fielder Josh Willingham as a potential piece of trade bait has grown in intensity, and two executives from other teams told me the Nationals have made it known Willingham is available. There appears to be strong interest in him within the NL East, with the Mets and Braves said to be involved.

On the surface, Willingham does not look like a player the Nationals should be trying to deal. He is relatively affordable (slated to make perhaps $4 million via arbitration in 2010) and under club control for two more seasons, and he plays a position for which the Nationals are lacking in depth. (On the other hand, more than one person in the organization has singled out Roger Bernadina as someone poised for a breakthrough.)

Willingham, 30, is also coming off arguably his best season in the majors, posting a career-best .863 OPS. As we all recall, there were weeks this season when Willingham carried the Nationals' offense.

So why would the Nationals trade such a player?

First, there are the cold, hard facts of Willingham's 2009 season, chiefly his precipitous dropoff at the end of the season. He went from a .304/.419/.576 line in the first half to .225/.322/.432 in the second half, losing .240 points of OPS along the way. In September/October, he was even worse, going .156/.248/.278.

Second, he is a defensive liability on a team that has a few too many of them, and GM Mike Rizzo is a pitching-and-defense advocate.

And finally, the Nationals understand they have to give up something of value to acquire the pitching they believe they need, and they would rather hold onto their top prospects and deal someone like Willingham. If there is widespread interest in him, all the better.

By Dave Sheinin  |  December 7, 2009; 12:12 PM ET
 
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Next: Nationals acquire RHP Bruney from NYY, Release Rivera

Comments

I love Willingham and would hate to see him go. Toal hi-class player who always does the right thing. My favorite story about him was when he dropped a ball that cost us the game and came and found Chico and asked if he needed to talk to him. That is character my friends and I'd hate to lose that from our team.

I wonder how much the death of his brother affected his drop off in production. I know he wouldn't allow himself that excuse but he's only human.

However, I for once have total faith in the GM and if Rizzo can land a solid pitcher or two for him and thinks we can develop some young OF guys, then I won't complain.

67 days til pitchers and catchers report.

Posted by: Avar | December 7, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I think Rizzo would entertain trading JWill because he realizes nothing hurts young, developing pitching more than bad defense. If you realistically look at a possible opening day lineup of Dunn at 1B, Guzman at 2B, Desmond at SS, FotF at 3B, Willingham in LF, Morgan in CF and Dukes in RF there are below-average fielders at 1B, 2B,and LF. FotF is outstanding as is Morgan, Dukes is average at best and Desmond is an unknown.

Posted by: leetee1955 | December 7, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

if they can get a proven pitcher, maybe in their late 20's early 30's + maybe a few prospects... that may be a good deal.

Posted by: alex35332 | December 7, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Dave,

Really cogent and well argued. I agree, he's one of the Nats really few "tradeable" pieces and as such, they might have to deal him, but my worry is that they're just trading one hole for another. The biggest problem from the '08 team was lack of power. Dunn and Willingham were supposed to solve that, and in large part they did - the Nats were middle of the pack on HRs and SLG% last year (with lots of help from Zim's breakout year). Willingham was an underrated part of that surge. Yes, his numbers dropped off in the second half, but that's a bit disingenuous - his May, June and July OPS were all 1.000+. There was no WAY he was going to maintain that, and in August, during the "dropoff" he fell down to an .839 OPS - which is basically dead on to his career average. Only in September/October did he really crater, and as bad as that month was (and it was AWFUL) he still ended up with career highs in both SLG and OPS. He was far better than the "right-handed Ryan Church" he looked like prior to last year, and there's no reason to think that he can't maintain his now-average OPS of .840.

That said, my biggest concern is the hole he makes when he leaves - the Nats had nearly dead-on league average power year last year (156 HRs, .406 SLG), compared to 155/.409 SLG as league averages. Willingham was third in HR, but there was nobody close to that. I respect those who see future greatness in Bernadina, but I don't see anything in his numbers that says "20-hr guy" - in 3000+ career PAs in the minors, he's hit 47 HRs. His next HR as a Nat will be his first. He may be a great defensive LF, but to justify trading Willingham, I think you have to be making a major bet on Elijah stepping up his power game, and I for one am not ready to say "Yes, he's your #5 hitter" just yet.

I agree Willingham's the most tradeable piece we have, but I seriously wonder if what we won't end up valuing him more highly than whatever we're offered in return.

Posted by: Highway295Revisited | December 7, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I want to have cake and eat it too. But if Trading Willingham brings one or more ready for prime time players - preferably pitchers, then you have to do it. I'm not opposed to them making Dukes available either. He's made alot of progress as a young adult, but still struggles with the curve ball.

Posted by: natbiscuits | December 7, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Wait we can trade him for cake?

Posted by: alex35332 | December 7, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Wait...you're wondering why the Nationals would be interested in trading a 30-year old coming off a career year?

Sell high, baby. Sell high.

Posted by: Tank2 | December 7, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

My question would be: Why do we need to trade a person like Willingham to fill needs when we are a large market team with a bottom five payroll?

We can fill some of the needs in Free Agency and if someone knocks our socks off for Willingham, well then, yes, trade him.

The Lerner's are selling us, as fans, a flaming bag of poop. 27th in payroll with a lot of dead contracts coming off the books in this offseason and there is not a lot of buzz about Free Agents in DC.

I hope it's a smoke screen by Rizzo and Kasten but, I fear, based on the past history, it's not.

Posted by: Section505203 | December 7, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Willingham is inconsistent. His career record shows that 2009 was a career type season for him.

The last thing you want to do is to figure that his numbers are likely to only go up from here at age 30.

The club made this mistake with Austin Kearns back in 2006 after he hit 26 home runs in Cincinnati and the Nationals were left with a player whose production never again matched that level.

Deal Willingham for pitching or an infielder whose defense is top notch?

Rizzo is right to investigate the possibilities.

Posted by: leopard09 | December 7, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

What are the particulars on the trade for Brian Bruney?

Posted by: Section314 | December 7, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Nationals acquire Brian Bruney from Yankees for a player to be named later. At least he's better than Kip Wells.

Posted by: SpashCity | December 7, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

That said, my biggest concern is the hole he makes when he leaves - the Nats had nearly dead-on league average power year last year (156 HRs, .406 SLG), compared to 155/.409 SLG as league averages. Willingham was third in HR, but there was nobody close to that.

I agree Willingham's the most tradeable piece we have, but I seriously wonder if what we won't end up valuing him more highly than whatever we're offered in return.

-----
Highway295Revisited

The Nats went from near-last in slugging to middle of the pack in one year. Progress, no? Now we are dead last in most pitching categories.

That is where Rizzo needs to put in some work. Offense will continue to improve even without Willingham. On a team without much to trade, in a year with a crap free agent class, the Hammer is one of the best tools we've got to improve the team.

-------

Posted by: nattydread1 | December 7, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

The Nationals acquired reliever Brian Bruney from the Yankees for a player to be named later, tweets Joel Sherman of the New York Post. Bruney, who is arbitration-eligible, is due a small raise on this year's $1.25MM salary. He's under team control through 2011.

The hard-throwing righty, who turns 28 in February, posted a 3.92 ERA in 39 innings this year, striking out 36 but walking 23. Plagued by elbow troubles, Bruney was bumped from the Yankees' set-up role for Phil Hughes in July. He figures to be high in the pecking order of Washington's pen, perhaps even a closer candidate if Mike MacDougal is non-tendered.


From MLB Trade Rumors.... (not yet the Post)

Posted by: natbiscuits | December 7, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Bruney
www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/brunebr01.shtml
Highlights:
He had 12 saves with AZ in 2005.
Career (6 seasons, 221.1 innings) ERA+ = 105; K/bb = 1.42

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | December 7, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

To get something you've got to give something hate to see JWill go, good, no great guy in clubhouse(where it counts imo)that being said defense and pitching will win games as Rizzo tries to build a winner just make sure we get "real" help so we can move forward.

Posted by: dargregmag | December 7, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I also like the hammer, but in Rizzo I trust. If he feels he can improve the team by moving him for an upside pitcher or whatever, then bang it. If the September Maxwell is for real, it could open a nice spot for him to keep improving.

Posted by: cokedispatch | December 7, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

So who might the PTBNL be? Looking at the Nats players, maybe the Yanks just wanted to avoid arbitration with a player who has had a past injury?

Posted by: TimDz | December 7, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

So he gets wild, he gets sore, but he doesn't get a whole lot of money, and he's probably better than most, if not all, the current pen.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | December 7, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I like Willingham as well, but if Rizzo has a chance to trade him for a front-line starter, then he must do that. Sell high on Willingham. If this does happen, then Rizzo must sign FA Xavier Nady. Same (if not a slightly better) offensive production as Willingham, but a FAR superior defender.

Also, I like the Bruney pick up (depending, of course, on who the PTBNL turns out to be). Relatively young, hard throwing reliever that won't cost too much money. Good move. Especially if this starts the wheels moving on non-tendering MacDougal.

Posted by: erocks33 | December 7, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Bruney
www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/brunebr01.shtml
Highlights:
He had 12 saves with AZ in 2005.
Career (6 seasons, 221.1 innings) ERA+ = 105; K/bb = 1.42


Oh no, Rizzo drafted him! It's Bowden all over with Cincy!!!! Run Brian Run!!!!!!!

Posted by: Brue | December 7, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

And he's got recent elbow problems too!!!! Oh no!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: Brue | December 7, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Can management be serious when they insist that a team that has lost 205 games thinks its okay to go into 2010 with basically the same team. "I'm comfortable with Guzman and Desmond up the middle with Zimmerman and Dunn at the corners, thats a pretty good major league infield" (Jim Riggleman WATIMES Monday 7 Dec).

Posted by: TippyCanoe | December 7, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Hey Chico!! Hey Sheinin! The trade for Bruney is all over the internet. The Yankee writers all have it. As usual, another example of the horrible coverage of the Post!!!

Posted by: OldSkoolDiehard | December 7, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

That's right, if this keeps up, I'm going to start reading the OP sports page ...

D'OH!

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | December 7, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I assume that was tongue in cheek and not an actual charge that Rizzo = Bowden because he still likes players he liked before. The primary difference being that he liked players with talent. Bowden put more emphasis on physical tools (not that there is ... oh nevermind) All talent evaluators pursue players that they are familiar with, because ... well they are familiar with them.

Posted by: natbiscuits | December 7, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

On the sniff test, Bruney smells like a replacement for Rivera.

Posted by: BinM | December 7, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Rizzo and his new/improved FO have done something now. Has JayBeee been notified?

Posted by: section309 | December 7, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Nats just release Saul Rivera to make room for Bruney, whiich means two things: 1)they released Saul Rivera and 2) the PTBNL is proabbly not on the 40...

Posted by: natbiscuits | December 7, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Or the PTBNL could be Saul Rivera, since he now has to clear waivers.

Posted by: section309 | December 7, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Offense will continue to improve even without Willingham.
-------

Posted by: nattydread1 | December 7, 2009 1:26 PM

***********
dread, from where exactly will offense "continue to improve?" Several prospects with hitting hopes have tanked in one way or another. Maybe Derek Norris or Danny Espinosa but they're a ways away.

On the other hand, I COMPLETELY forgot about Bernadina. If Bernadina's in LF and Jesus can hit like he's healthy, it MAY make up for the loss of Willingham. And if Dukes can hit the curve we might be good. But I don't trust it. I still think we need Willingslam's bat.

On the other hand, I still think a Lowe/Willingham swap would be good.

Posted by: NatsNut | December 7, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Lowe for Willingham and who else? Unless the Braves need to dump salary (Lowe's due $15MM each of the next 3 years) that bad.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | December 7, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Offense will continue to improve, II:

IF Nyjer Morgan stays healthy, he's better than anyone else they had there last year; AND IF Dukes figures it out while playing right, he's better than Kearns; AND IF Flores comes back healthy and stays that way; Guzman, at second or short, whichever, has one more good year in him; AND IF Desmond is better than he looks so far; and Zimm and Dunn do what they do; then they STILL need a bench.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | December 7, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Y'all do know about the new post(s), right?

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | December 7, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

I assume that was tongue in cheek and not an actual charge that Rizzo = Bowden because he still likes players he liked before. The primary difference being that he liked players with talent. Bowden put more emphasis on physical tools (not that there is ... oh nevermind) All talent evaluators pursue players that they are familiar with, because ... well they are familiar with them.

Posted by: natbiscuits

Different GM, same restraints, same behavior. Let's get clever today kids!!! See how smart and deliberate we are???

Jello does Rawhide - all midget cast. Since we're talkin music here too.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDehTfim014&feature=related

Posted by: Brue | December 7, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

On the offense continuing to improve: I don't think you can take out the #3 overall offensive player from a league-average team and just say "well the others will make it up." Here's a list of slugging % and HRs, top to bottom on the Nats in '09:

Slugging: .529 (Dunn); .525 (Zimm); .505 (Flores in 93 ABs); .496 (Willingham); .435 (Nyjer in 49ABs); .402 (NJ); .393 (Dukes), nobody else with >50ABs & >.400

HRs: 38 (Dunn); 33 (Zimm); 24 (Willingham); 8 (Dukes), nobody else >7

So, I think if you say "the offense will continue to improve without Willingham" then you need to point to where that improvement is coming from - Zimm's not having ANOTHER breakout year, and we should be ready for him to potentially backslide a little, adding to the offensive burden on the others with Willingham gone.

The candidate pool: Dukes, Flores. I think both of those guys have .430/.440 kind of power in them, but I thought that in '08 and last year - neither one of them have shown the health record or the performance record to make me say "Sure, go ahead and trade our third-best hitter for an over-30 starting pitcher."

That feels like waffling between problems - lack of offense one year, lack of defense and pitching the next. I'm not saying he's untouchable, but if it were me, I'd set a prohibitively-high, you'd-be-a-fool-to-pay-this asking price.

We had a -164 run differential last year. Even if Bernadina is the greatest LF in the history of the game defensively, how many runs is he saving vs. how many fewer is he creating than Willingham. I haven't run the Fangraphs-style projection, but I somewhat doubt that 500ABs of a guy with a .734 career minor league OPS is couterbalancing the loss of a guy who averages 20+ HRs a year.

Don't get me wrong, I think Bernadina's useful, but I think he's most useful as a 4th OF, defensive fill-in, unless he's got a lot more pop than he's shown so far.

Posted by: Highway295Revisited | December 7, 2009 3:17 PM | Report abuse

If the Nats were going to trade JWill, it should have been before the bottom fell out of his season. He was playing way over his head during the first half and when the trade deadline approached, these boards were filled with folks who were screaming bloody murder at the thought of trading our *best* offensive player (despite the fact he was 30 years old and had never even come close to posting numbers like that before). And then what happens? He regresses toward his career average as expected and reaffirms that he's a respectable but far from great outfielder.

At the time I was dumbfounded we didn't trade this guy. He's a decent piece for a contender but doesn't have much value for a team trying to build from the ground up like the Nats. I realize that what it boiled down to is that nobody offered enough to make the Nats pull the trigger on a deal but if anyone thinks that we're going to get a front-line starter for him NOW when we couldn't get one for him while he was tearing the cover off the ball, I think you're going to be sorely disappointed. The time to "sell-high" on Willingham has come and gone. Now it's just time to sell.

Posted by: jhcarson | December 7, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

I would hold off on trading Willingham just yet.
This team not only needs depth, it needs players who are positive clubhouse as well. Willingham gives us both.

Stabilize the team first, then perhaps look at trading him next year.

Posted by: dashriprock | December 7, 2009 8:00 PM | Report abuse

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