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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.