What Should The Nationals Do With Josh Willingham? Part I

Steve O Speak

With Adam Dunn’s impending departure in Free Agency, it seems like now is the time to lock up Josh Willingham long term. That idea is further reinforced by Nationals fans with reports that Willingham is open to negotiating an extension now. While it is hard to see where Mike Rizzo and the Nats brass fall in the ‘Extend Josh’ club, I hope they explore all their options and seriously consider trading him.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Willingham and think he has done some great things with the Nats, but it is obvious that this team needs more. The Nationals have finished in last place each of the last two seasons with Willingham (and Dunn for that matter) in the heart of their lineup. This past year was even worse with the influx of young talent (Desmond, Storen, Strasburg) and a vastly improved bullpen. Now Willingham isn’t to blame for the Nats failures, nor is Dunn. The point that I’m making is that even with these big time bats, this team wasn’t a contender (or even close to being one). Their needs are great and they should be looking to build a young team that can compete for years to come.

Willingham, who will be going into next year at 32 years old, doesn’t fit the mold of what the Nationals are trying to develop. On top of his being on the wrong side of 30, Willingham has serious injury issues, that have affected each season of his career. The Nationals can’t rely on Willingham to be in the lineup for 150+ days, and given the lack of a supporting cast, that really sets the Nats back. Although, Willingham’s injury concerns does cut into his trade value, plenty of other contenders will still be interested. So while it is possible that by 2012 the Nationals are ready to contend, they are more likely to reach that goal by trading Willingham than resigning him.

Willingham could appeal to contenders in need of a LF (primary position), RF (secondary position), 1B (hasn’t really played it in the majors, but has said he is willing, though most contenders will have a better option), or DH. A number of American League teams would be interested to have him split time in between the OF and DH, but I wouldn’t rule out National League suitors since Willingham is an average defender in LF. Here are some teams that could be interested in Willingham and what they might have in return that the Nationals want:

Red Sox: Boston might not look to get into the Werth or Crawford sweepstakes, and instead look to spend their money on pitching (i.e. Lee). If that is the case, they could look to acquire a bat like Willingham to split time in the OF and DH. David Ortiz might not be back, and even if he is, he likely won’t be an every day DH. With the Red Sox having a number of young OF’s nearly ready in the minors, Willingham being under contract for 1 year isn’t as big of a concern. The Nationals could be interested in 1B prospect Lars Anderson as well as some of their OF/SP prospects.

Rays: Crawford is leaving, and while they have Desmond Jennings there to replace him, Willingham would be a good fall back if he struggled. If Jennings performed well, Willingham could DH and play 1B primarily, and fill in for the OF as needed. The Rays are looking to move one of their young starters, either Matt Garza or James Shields. Either pitcher would be a big upgrade for the Nats and both are under team control for at least 3 years. While the Nats would probably still need to kick in a prospect (as well as through in some money to offset Willingham’s contract), but it would be better than giving up the 2-4 quality prospects they’d have to move if Willingham wasn’t part of the deal. The Rays also might be interested in trading prospects for Willingham (likely young pitchers), instead of moving an established arm. Either way, if the Rays look to contend Willingham would be a nice addition.

White Sox: While Willingham likely won’t factor in the Sox’s 1B opening, he would be a good fit in DH/LF. Chicago didn’t have the hitting to go along with their pitching last year, which is a mistake they won’t make again. Chicago doesn’t have the traditional pieces the Nats are looking for though CF Jordan Danks could interest them. A 3-team deal might be possible (and they are much more easy to do in the offseason than at the trade deadline).

Tigers: The Tigers like the White Sox had the pitching last year to contend, but were really a 1 bat team. The good news for the Tigers is their bat is definitely returning, Miguel Cabrera. The bad news is they need to surround him with some big time hitters this year. Willingham could fit in the OF or at DH, and would be a big improvement for Detroit. The Tigers have a number of interesting young pitchers that could interest the Nats, though not sure if Detroit is willing to let them go.

Braves: If Atlanta doesn’t add a 1B and hands the reigns to Freddie Freeman, they will need to add a veteran bat elsewhere to help protect Heyward (and Freeman). Left field wasn’t a good spot for the Braves last year, and Willingham would be a big upgrade. While Freeman won’t be going anywhere (unless they sign Dunn), the Braves have a stable of young pitchers that would interest the Nationals, and help them develop a top flight future rotation.

Cardinals: St. Louis already has Matt Holliday in left field, but they are looking to add another bat to help protect Holliday and Pujols in the middle of that lineup. Willingham isn’t a great RF, but he is passable, and more importantly he is more of a sure thing. The Cards had a very disappointing season considering their core of players, so I’d look for them to make a big move. They don’t have the money to go after Werth, Lee or Crawford, but could easily afford Willingham. Their system is a bit weak, but Allan Craig would be an interesting option, and if Colby Rasmus were to become available, Willingham could be one of the keys for that package.

Reds: Cincinnati was a fun and surprising team this year, but they could use another bat. They used a platoon of Lance Nix and Jonny Gomes last year, and didn’t have the best results. If they could upgrade this spot, they would be very dangerous going forward, and they don’t have the money to get one of the top tier free agents. The Nationals might even need to send some money to make this deal work, but it would be interesting. The Reds have a redundant 1B prospect in Yonder Alonso, as well as a young OF in Chris Heisey whom the Nats should target.

Check back later for Part II, where I weigh the risk vs. reward of dealing Willingham, as well as list some OF options for the Nats if they move him.

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