When the Nationals traded Josh Willingham for power arm Henry Rodriguez and minor league outfielder Corey Brown in December, the team and its fans thought we were getting a good outfielder prospect plus a valuable power arm, back of the bullpen type in exchange for a defensively challenged left fielder who couldn’t stay healthy (that is certainly the glass-is-half-empty analysis of Willingham’s contributions to this team, but so be it).
Brown was always set to repeat AAA, having struggled there last year after dominating lower levels of the minors. He still may feature in our outfield at some point if our slew of LF/CF options fail us and he plays well to start the season. His ankle injury certainly is not helping him prepare for 2011, but he’s not the real prize of the Willingham trade.
Rodriguez, after showing up for spring training 2 weeks late and not getting into a game for another week, is now “being shelved” to work on his mechanics. A week before opening day. Here’s his stats for the spring thus far: 2 1/3 innings, 7.71 era, 3 hits, 3 walks and only about half the pitches he’s thrown being in the strike zone. The coaching staff report that his mechanics are out of whack, that he cannot repeat his delivery and he’s been doing nothing but bullpen work for the past 5 days.
Rodriguez has no minor league options. The Athletics knew this and the Nationals knew this upon trading their starting left fielder, #5 hitter and top OPS producer from 2010. Now this roster inflexibility is set to cause a serious issue for this team. We can’t just “invent” an injury for Rodriguez to store him on the DL; last time I checked my orthopaedic surgeon didn’t treat “mechanical flaw” as an injury. So, instead of leaving someone deserving on the opening day roster (say, Collin Balester or even Drew Storen, not that he’s been 100% deserving based on his spring performance but remember he did appear in 50+ games last year rather effectively, especially for a rookie), we’re going to probably lug him around for a while and look for incredibly low-priority outings for him to “remember” how to pitch again.
I know all of Willingham’s faults. He’s injury prone, he was arbitration eligible and his salary was escalating, he hasn’t ever played a full season without time off for injuries. More importantly to Rizzo, he was a severe defensive liability, even in a position that traditionally can “hide” poor defenders. And Rizzo from the onset has seemed dead set on fielding a team of track stars, no matter what the cost.
But none of those reasons factor in the most important point; Willingham can mash the ball. In two seasons in Washington he had OPS+ figures of 129 and 127 (which would have ranked him about 20th in the NL had he qualified each year) and hit in the 5th hole protecting Adam Dunn admirably. You don’t just give up that much offense unless you KNOW you’re getting something of equal value in return.
Right now, we’re not getting anything close to equal value for him. And it may have larger ramifications for the team that breaks camp in a week or so.