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What Should The Nationals Do With Josh Willingham? Part II

October 29, 2010 in Uncategorized

In Part I I looked at a case that could be made for dealing Josh Willingham, as well as some potential suitors for the Nationals to deal with. In Part II I will look deeper into the risk/reward of trading Willingham, as well as some potential replacement options.

Risk/Reward:

Anytime you trade a player you deal with risk vs. reward, and all factors need to be taken into consideration. Player value, contract length, contract amount, durability, replacement availability, and opposing team need, are all taken into account by a team in determining whether or not to make a deal, and that player's ultimate trade value.

In terms of Willingham his value is fairly high, as he finished 9th in WAR among left fielders, despite missing a 1/3 of the season.  His offensive WAR value was 7th, and had he played the entire year could have been as high as 4th among LF's. Considering he has posted an wOBA of .363 or better in his 5 years as a starter (and has been over .370 each of the last two), Willingham's offensive numbers aren't a fluke. He won't replace a Josh Hamilton or Matt Holliday in the lineup, but he is firmly in the 2nd tier of corner outfielders. With those types of numbers, Willingham would be highly attractive as a DH as well (his offensive WAR value would have been 4th, and easily could have been 1st with a full season).

As for the rest of the categories that go into the decision to trade him, most of them point towards moving Willingham. Willingham is under team control for only one more year before hitting free agency, meaning the Nationals need to decide now whether to extend or trade him. While his being under team control for only one more season would seem to hurt his trade value, it could actually help it as well since more teams will be interested. There are going to be a number of teams in need of corner outfield/DH help this offseason, and only two can end up with either Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford. Willingham will present a much cheaper option for teams that might not want to invest 5-7 years into one of those top free agents.

And since his contract value will be determined by Arbitration, there is a ceiling of how high it can be. Willingham will likely earn in the neighborhood of $7-9 million, so if the the Nationals were willing to take on some of that salary, he could be interesting to some budget conscious teams. In Part 1 I mentioned 7 possible suitors, but depending on how things shake out a handful of other teams could get interested, meaning the market for Willingham's services will rise.

Given the number of suitors, lack of available free agent options (the market is pretty dry behind Werth and Crawford, Huff is a possibility, but he is more of a 1B), and few other big OF bats on the trade block, it should be a seller's market for Willingham. Even if some non-Of big bats become available, like Adrian Gonzalez, and Prince Fielder they will be so expensive in terms of money/prospects that it would limit their suitor pool. Willingham will remain one of (if not the most) affordable bat available. Now the lone downside for trading Willingham is that the Nationals don't have a great short term or long term replacement for him.  Which means they will either need to get an outfielder back, sign a weaker option, or make a separate trade for a young outfielder.

Now the Nationals aren't going to get a major trade package, like what Texas received for Tex, or the Orioles got for Bedard, but it is still worth the risk for Washington. As Willingham is a very good player, but he isn't irreplaceable, and he can bring back good value to help build a sustainable contender.

Internal Options:

Mike Morse: Morse replaced Willingham after the injury and fared much better than expected, but I don't know if the Nationals can count on a repeat performance as well. In addition Morse is likely part of the plan to replace Dunn at 1B, and still help out in RF. Even if the Nats weren't concerned about those other positions, Morse could have very well been a one year wonder. He deserves a solid role for this team, but it is hard to peg him as a middle of the order hitter going forward.

Minor League options:

Micheal Burgess: Burgess is on the RF depth chart for this organization, but a move to LF is likely in his future. Burgess has the arm for RF, but he isn't the best athlete, so a move to LF would make sense. In addition with uber prospect Bryce Harper behind him, Burgess will need to switch corners if he hopes to play with the Nationals. Although Burgess could be ready within the next two years, he isn't a real 'sure-thing'. His power is legit, and he should put quite a few balls over the wall, but he hasn't shown great plate discipline so far. If he doesn't begin to improve in the upper minors, he might never become a regular starter, much less the impact bat the Nats are hoping for.

Destin Hood, J. R. Higley, J.P. Ramirez: These are the next three corner outfielders in the Nats system not named Harper, but none of them are ready to fill Willingham's shoes. All of them have potential, but none are on the prospect level of Burgess (much less Harper). And all three are at least 3 years away. Maybe one will develop into a starter, to take over when a potential Willingham extension would be up, but I wouldn't count on it.

Free Agent Options:

None: Let's be honest here Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford aren't really legitimate options for the Nationals. And while Aubrey Huff could replace Willingham's offensive production, unless they find a better option at 1B, Washington would use him to replace Dunn. There are plenty of lesser free agent options, but no one the Nationals should consider as a viable replacement. If they move Willingham, they might sign a stopgap/backup plan, but it can't be their primary LF next year.

Trade Options: Now I'm only focusing on young players here, since trading for a Luke Scott really wouldn't fix this need longterm.

Alex Gordon: I mentioned Gordon as a potential replacement for Adam Dunn, but he profiles better as a left fielder (while at the same time, being able to backup RF, 3B, and 1B). Gordon would be a nice 'buy low' candidate, and I really could see him breaking out with a change of scenery. His price tag will likely be even less than when the Nats acquired Willingham (and Scott Olsen) a couple of years ago, and he has plenty of upside. He is a great trade option, given his potential, price tag and versatility. He is only under team control for another 3 years (all at arbitration prices), but that will help keep his trade value low. Also, he will still be very affordable, compared to free agent prices, or Willingham's extension cost. The Royals, who seem to be in rebuilding mode won't have interest in Willingham, meaning this would be a separate deal.

Allen Craig: Craig is another option I mentioned as a Dunn replacement, but could also fit in as a future LF as well. He isn't as big of a name, and probably won't become a superstar, but he does profile as a solid 5th or 6th hitter in a playoff caliber lineup. He is by no means a perfect solution, but does get high marks for his versatility and hitting ability. His plate discipline could be better, but he makes good contact and has 25 HR+ power. He is redundant in St. Louis and still has 6 years of team control. The Cardinals could be interested in Willingham as another bat to go along with Holliday and Pujols, or might prefer to strengthen their bullpen (as well as always a prospect for prospect option), making it likely a deal could be worked out. *Note I'm not saying it would be Craig for Willingham straight up, just that he could be part of the package.

Chris Heisey: Heisey is a LF/CF from the Reds organization, that could make sense for the Nationals as part of a package for Willingham (or a reliever). He is a fringe 5-tool player, as his power is still a work in progress, but he has great speed, hits well, and plays very good defense. He might be a better fit as a center fielder, if his power doesn't come along, but he is an intriguing option going forward. He would significantly improve the Nationals OF defense if he is at a corner spot, something they might be willing to sacrifice power on if they feel Harper will be ready by 2012.

Fernando Martinez: Martinez was once one of the top prospects in all of baseball, but has since had his progress derailed by injuries. He is still just 22 years old so the upside is there, but he does come with plenty of risk. He would give the Nationals a very athletic LF, though at the cost of power. While the Mets have their own OF, problems I could see them looking to cash in on Martinez while they still can. Willingham, probably doesn't interest the Mets considering the fact they can't get out from under Bay or Beltran's contracts, but New York could be interested in a reliever or even just prospects.

Now these are just some of the Major League ready options, there are plenty of additional young OF's they could look to acquire with an eye towards 2012. Right now though, they should look to bring in one of these names (potentially 2 of them) to look to replace Willingham. Craig might be my first choice given his power potential, versatility, years of team control, and no major injury history, but I'd be okay with any of the options.

Overall I don't know If the Nationals will be bold enough to make a deal with Willingham (and subsequently add a young OF, if he isn't part of the deal), but they should. Signing him long term might appease a few fans bitter over the loss of Dunn, but it likely won't make a major difference in their win loss record. Willingham is a good player, and a great clubhouse guy, but the Nationals need more if they hope to compete. Trading Willingham can bring them closer to that goal, as it will help restock their system (see: Matt Capps trade). And if Willingham doesn't agree to an extension with his new club the Nationals can always pursue him as a few agent a year from now (plus they have the young players they received in return).


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