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The Willingham Conundrum

August 26, 2011

Josh Willingham has been the A’s foremost power hitter this year, that is unquestioned. While there is a good chance that that mantle will be taken over in the very near future by Brandon Allen, for 2011 Willingham is tops. His .231 ISO leads the club, well better than the next highest entrant (Scott Sizemore) and their .167 mark and among full-time players he dwarfs Kurt Suzuki‘s .151. Willingham has stated he’d be open to signing an extension to stay in Oakland. His numbers are good, he leads the club in home runs (22), ISO (.231), SLG (.477), wOBA (.350) and wRC+ (124). He is being paid $6M this season, but has already been worth $6.8M. In many cases it’d seem a simple open and shut case to re-sign the guy, but Oakland has more payroll pressures than many clubs, Willingham missed a decent amount of time with a sore achilles and he is going to be 33 next season which means he begins to enter (if not already) his decline phase.

Before deciding whether or not it’d be worthwhile re-signing Willingham, it is best to try and figure out how much it would cost and that number is not presently clear. Just recently Jeff Francoeur re-signed with the Kansas City Royals for two years at $13.5M a season. Presently he has put up 2.3 WAR (which trumps Willingham’s 1.5 – Willingham rightfully gets nicked on his defense) and unlike Willingham, Francoeur is going to be a mere 28 at season’s start next year, presumably in his prime. If you compare these two players it’d seem that Willingham would do poorly and get less than him, however Francoeur’s lack of consistency (prior to this year’s 2.3 WAR campaign he put up -0.8, 0.3 and 0.6 WAR in consecutive seasons) makes him presumably a higher risk. But Willingham does provide a somewhat higher level of certainty. Despite being somewhat of an injury risk and having several stints on the disabled list he has put together solid and consistent campaigns of 3.0, 2.5 and 3.0 WAR prior to this season.

The free-agent market is filled with similarly flawed players like Willingham. In among free-agent left-fielders Willingham’s 1.5 WAR is the best – in fact in a testament to how bad left fielders in general have been this year his 1.5 WAR is eleventh among all qualified left fielders. Lance Berkman (3.9 WAR and 36 years old), Carlos Beltran (3.6 WAR and 35 years old) and Michael Cuddyer (2.9 WAR and 33 years old) are the only better corner outfielders on the market this year (though Nick Swisher could be the prize if the Yankees opt to not exercise their club option on him at 3.8 WAR and 31 years old). In his two years prior to signing a one-year deal last year, Berkman put up 2.9 and 2.1 WAR, comparable numbers to Willinghams production (albeit at a much older 34 and 35) and Berkman was able to nab a one-year $8M contract from the Cardinals while Oakland themselves were willing to offer him a two-year deal according to several reports. I think this is a fair comp so let’s add a few extra dollars because Willingham is younger (even though through his 33 and 34 years Berkman was likely a better player) and go with Willingham on a two-year $20M deal. Do you sign him?

For Willingham to be worth $10M a season, he likely will need to put up a little more than 2.0 WAR which seems like something he could relatively easily do. The advantages of the deal are it is not cost-prohibitive, it is not an albatross and the A’s really have quite an impending vacancy in the outfield for 2012. A two-year deal is something that Willingham should snap up, because despite being one of a weak marketplaces better offerings, one has to think that many teams may just view him as a designated hitter which likely will deflate his value.

After weeks of sitting on the fence, I think a two-year $20M deal to Willingham would be fair to both parties and would be a deal worthwhile for both parties as well. If the A’s cannot sign him to an extension, they most definitely should offer him arbitration no matter what as there is no risk if he should say yes to arbitration. Willingham should be re-signed, I’m off the fence now.

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