A few days after signing Hideki Matsui to DH, the Oakland Athletics have taken another step to invigorate an offense that ranked 10th in the American League in wOBA last season. The A’s have acquired outfielder Josh Willingham from the Washington Nationals for a pair of prospects: outfielder Corey Brown and right-handed reliever Henry Rodriguez.
Willingham, 32 in February, is expected to start in left field. After making $4.6 million in 2010, Willingham has one year of arbitration eligibility remaining and is likely to pull in $5 million-$6 million next year. Since becoming an everyday player for the Marlins in 2006, the right-handed slugger has been a metronome in terms of value. His park and league-adjusted wOBA, or wRC+, was 124 in 2006, 122 in 2007 and 2008, 130 in 2009 and a career-best 138 this past year. Willingham’s WAR totals since ’06? +2.4, +2.2, +2.9, +2.5, and +2.7.
The man known as “The Hammer” isn’t that fleet of foot, as his career -4.6 UZR/150 in the outfield corners indicates, and he does have a tendency to miss some time. Over the last three years, Willingham has averaged 116 games played and about 456 plate appearances per season, suffering from, among other things, a lower back injury in 2008 and a torn meniscus in his left knee in 2010 that required season-ending surgery in mid-August. But even though he surrenders some runs defensively and isn’t a picture of perfect health, Willingham’s superb strike-zone control and quality power make him a good bet for another 2.5-3 WAR season. That sort of performance is worth more than $12 million on the open market if you subscribe to a $5 million/WAR figure. Willingham could also bring back draft pick compensation next winter, as the latest Reverse-Engineered Elias Rankings on MLBTradeRumors list him as a potential Type A free agent.
To get Willingham, the A’s departed with Brown and Rodriguez. Neither is considered a top young talent, but both could be major league contributors. The left-handed Brown has a good deal of power and athleticism. However, he’s also 25 years old, has a history of injuries, and performed poorly in his first taste of Triple-A last year. Rodriguez, 24 in February, flirts with triple-digits on the radar gun and has some positive MLB experience (31.2 IP, 10.52 K/9, 4.26 BB/9, 3.86 xFIP). Oakland is more likely to miss Rodriguez, who whiffed 11.6 hitters per nine innings pitched in the minors. He’s far from a sure thing, though — while he seemed to make some strides with his control in 2010, Rodriguez’s career walk rate in the minors is 6.6 per nine frames. A so-so outfield prospect and a lottery ticket reliever doesn’t seem like an exorbitant price to pay for a year of Willingham’s services at a below-market rate and possibly a pair of draft picks.
The trade gives the A’s a starting outfield that includes Willingham in left, Coco Crisp in center, and fellow trade acquisition David DeJesus in right. While none of those players is a star, each has the potential for above-average production with a 2-3 WAR season. Willingham’s addition relegates Ryan Sweeney to a fourth outfielder role. Still, he figures to see the field quite often given the injury concerns with Willingham and especially Crisp, who missed much of 2009 with a torn labrum in his shoulder and was DL’d in 2010 with a strained intercostal muscle and a fractured pinky finger. A torn right thumb ligament took down DeJesus in late July. Of course, Sweeney has health problems himself — right knee surgery closed the book on his season in July. He had a DL stint for a sprained left knee in 2009, as well as for foot and hand problems in 2008.
Another frail fly catcher, Conor Jackson, will either be a pricey fifth outfielder (he made $3.1 million last year and is arbitration-eligible one last time in 2011) or more likely, trade bait that no one’s exactly fighting to get.
In picking up Willingham, the A’s appear to be guarding against a scenario in which Crisp and Sweeney’s fragility forces the team to give a prominent role to someone among the group of Jackson (he of an 86 wRC+ last season), defensively-challenged prospect Chris Carter or Michael Taylor, a former Phillies farmhand whose pop vanished at Sacramento last season. With Willingham in the fold, the A’s shouldn’t have to worry about Jackson avoiding the plague while getting his slugging percentage above .330, starting a DH-type in Carter or turning a job over to Taylor while hoping his tepid Triple-A performance was just a blip instead of a warning sign for a mid-twenties prospect.
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