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Re-Evaluating the Josh Willingham Trade

Ever since Mike Rizzo’s promotion to the General Manager position for the Washington Nationals, he has built a reputation as one of the most aggressive managers in the major leagues.  From signing almost every top draft pick to pursuing tons of big name free agents, Rizzo has made it his mission to bring Washington, DC their first World Series championship.  In doing so, he has already made some unquestionably great trades in his short tenure, the best example being the trade for starting catcher Wilson Ramos.  Despite all these positive aspects/transactions, there has been one specific trade that is worth revisiting.

On December 16th 2010, the Nationals announced that they had traded left fielder Josh Willingham, a year before his contract expired, for fireball reliever Henry Rodriguez and outfield prospect Corey Brown.  Although the initial reaction to the trade was in favor of the Nationals, after a full season and the start of this season, it has become clear that losing a consistent left fielder has hurt a lot.

Shortly after Willingham left for Oakland, the Nationals were left searching for a replacement.  The most immediate was Michael Morse after an amazing spring training, but early in the season he was moved to first base to replace Adam LaRoche.  Off-season pick-up Laynce Nix stepped in and produced a mediocre season with a .250/.299/.451 slash line and 16 homeruns.  About half way through the season, the Nationals traded for Jonny Gomes to split time with Nix.  Gomes produced even worse than his projections with a .204 batting average and three homeruns in 43 games.

Combined, Gomes and Nix, didn’t come close to producing what Willingham did with the A’s in 2011.  In 136 games, Willingham hit a career high 29 homeruns with 98 RBI.  While he only had a .246 batting average, he had a .332 on base percentage as well as a .477 slugging percentage.  While Willingham probably would have been an expensive bench player early in the season for the Nationals, he would have made a huge impact when given the chance if he even put up close to the numbers like he did in Oakland.

Once again this season, another injury, this time to Michael Morse, has left the left field position open for the first month or two.  Again two pick-ups, veterans Mark DeRosa and Xavier Nady, are taking the majority of the time.  While both have a great presence in the clubhouse, both have started the season absolutely horribly at the dish.  DeRosa in 30 at bats has accumulated only three hits while Nady has six hits in 40 at bats.  Combined they have a single homerun with three RBI.  Josh Willingham, on the other hand, just won AL Player of the Week.  In his first 15 games, he has hit five homeruns with 12 RBI and a .339 batting average.  Although the Nationals have gotten off to a hot start, Willingham’s offensive production couldn’t have hurt.

Corey Brown and Henry Rodriguez are the only two players who can make up for the loss of production the Nationals suffered last season.  Brown virtually has no shot.  For the next couple of years Werth, Harper, and Morse will most likely lock up every outfield position.  Prospects Brian Goodwin and Eury Perez are higher on the team’s prospect depth chart than Brown, too.

With that, Rodriguez is really the only one who has a chance.  In 2011, he put up decent numbers with a 3.56 ERA in 65.2 innings, but had a major problem with control until September.  He walked 45 batters and threw 14 wild pitches that led to a 1.508 WHIP.  This season he has continued where he left off.  In 7.1 innings, he has only given up one unearned run leading to a 0.00 ERA.  He has also stepped in to the closer role with Drew Storen injured and has saved four games.   Rodriguez truly has the stuff to become one of the best relievers in the game.  If he can keep his production consistent in the long run his pitching will most likely make up for what the Nationals lost in Josh Willingham.

At the time of the trade, not one person expected the devastating injuries that the Nationals endured throughout the 2010-2011 season.  It was very unfortunate that the Nationals executed the trade when they did.  Keeping a hold of Willingham would have helped the Nationals significantly, but no one could have ever predicted what he put together this past year.  Ultimately the trade was made for the future of the ball club.  If Henry Rodriguez can continue putting together great numbers, the Nationals will continue to succeed as a team that relies on pitching and Willingham will be a distant memory.

About Joe Drugan

Managing editor of The Nats Blog and co-host of the Nats Talk On The Go podcast.

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