The Scott Olsen Deal

Overshadowed by the Matt Holliday trade was a smaller deal pulled off yesterday beteween the Marlins and Nationals. While it doesn’t contain an all-star, it’s an interesting deal nonetheless.

The Nationals acquired LHP Scott Olsen and OF/1B Josh Willingham from Florida in exchange for 2B Emilio Bonifacio, RHP P.J. Dean, and SS Jake Smolinski.

At first glance, the Nationals would seem to be the big winners here. They get the two players that most baseball fans have heard of, and both Olsen and Willingham are young and theoretically headed for their prime. Willingham’s a career .266/.361/.472 hitter, combing walks and power into a package that makes him an above average hitter. Olsen, meanwhile, is a 24-year-old lefty with nearly 600 major league innings under his belt, and he was considered one of the game’s best pitching prosepcts a few years ago. Both guys the Nationals got have some abilities.

But clearly, the Marlins determined that they’d be better off without both, and they might not be wrong. Let’s start with Olsen – superficially, his 4.20 ERA in 200 innings last year has value, especially as a young southpaw, but that was a complete fluke. He actually took a huge step back in his performance, thanks to a drop of 2.3 MPH in his fastball and a corresponding collapse of his strikeout rate. Take a look at the graph of his career K/9 marks:


That’s not exactly what you consider improvement. Olsen’s turning into a pitch-to-contact flyball starter with bad command, and pitchers with that skillset struggle to be anything better than a marginal #5 starter.

As for Willingham, the bat is nice, but his glove in the outfield is absolutely atrocious. By pretty much every defensive metric out there, Willingham gives back 10 to 15 runs a season with his poor glove work, essentially canceling out the decency of his bat. Terrible defenders with just good but not great offensive performances are not particularly valuable players, and that’s the category Willingham falls into.

Neither of the guys the Nationals got back are as good as their reputations, and they’re both unlikely to help turn around the fortunes of a struggling Washington ballclub. That doesn’t necessarily make this a bad deal for them, however – the three guys they gave up are nothing special either, so they’re essentially taking a flier on Olsen’s velocity returning or Willingham improving his defense – if either happens, they’re the clear winners of this deal, as the Marlins just didn’t get much upside coming back their way. For Florida, this was a clear salary dump.

The real lesson from this deal may be that Jim Bowden continues to not care about defense or actual performance, and continues to acquire players on the strength of their minor league reputations. It didn’t work in Cincy, it hasn’t worked in Washington, and I wonder how many more chances he’s going to get to keep rebuilding past Baseball America Top 100 lists and call it a roster.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

8 Responses to “The Scott Olsen Deal”

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  1. Aram says:

    While I agree that the perceived value of these two is higher than their actual value, on the trade market perceived value can count for something. The Marlins may be better off without these Willingham and Olsen, but they would be even better off if they had gotten a return that more closely mirrored how most view these two. It is too early in the offseason for complete salary dumps, especially for a team that isn’t exactly freeing up room to make a splash on the FA market. Emilio Bonifacio would have been available in January when all other avenues had been exhausted. The Marlins have a few holes and whether deservedly or not these two guys could have brought a return that would have plugged at least one of those holes.

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  2. Dave Cameron says:

    The Marlins made it quite clear that they were going to move Scott Olsen this winter. The fact that they made this deal serves as evidence that there probably wasn’t as big of a market for him as you might think. His velocity drop was almost certainly noticed by other teams, and he’s got a long history of off field issues.

    It’s pretty unlikely that the Marlins were going to get a big haul for this pair.

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  3. Nice piece, and I agree that Willingham isn’t exactly Franklin Gutierrez in the outfield, but it while I’m not a Marlins or a Nationals fan, just as a fan of good baseball analysis (which you almost always provide, Mr. Cameron), it would be nice if people would at least notice that Willingham was +10 plays and among the top defensive LFs in baseball this year. Yeah, it might be a fluke, but it counts. It’s not like he’s Dunn, Burrell, or Ibanez out there.

    Also interesting, despite Pena, is that Bowden also traded for Austin Kearns, who was +18 in 2007, and +9 in 2006.

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  4. NTPNate says:


    There’s some chatter from Nats fans (perhaps hoping against hope) that Willingham will be moved to 1B for 2009. Assuming he’s only slightly below average defensively at 1B, does that change the calculus?

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  5. Johnny_Blaze says:


    As a Nationals’ fan, I am interested in learning more about the two recent additions to my team. I was browsing the fielding statistics for Willingham from the last couple seasons and he doesn’t seem to be that horrible of a defender in LF. You would certainly have to agree that he is at least an upgrade over Wily Mo or Willie Harris in LF. I was wondering if you could be more specific about which defensive metrics you are referring to when you call Willingham’s fielding “absolutely atrocious.” I appreciate it!

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  6. Sean says:

    He isn’t really an upgrade over Harris. Harris is pretty crazy good fielder. I would say they are about equal players overall.

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  7. Bill Giery says:

    Just more of the same. Crap in, crap out.

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  8. Will says:

    Harris was one of the best defensive players in all of baseball last year. While he won’t likely maintain those numbers, he’s still very good defensively.
    I’d like to see Willingham play the majority of his time at first. But if Nick Johnson can stay healthy, I think he’d be a good platoon outfielder, playing around 100 games in left.

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