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Willingham Rental: Was It Worth It?

October 6, 2011

I suppose this now is the second entry in the “was it worth it?” category as yesterday we covered the one-year rental of David DeJesus. Today let’s look and see if the rental of Josh Willingham was worth it. Last December 16th is when Willingham came to Oakland in exchange for OF Corey Brown and RHP Henry Rodriguez. Like at the time of the DeJesus deal this blog was not yet in existence and like that trade then too I’d have been a fan of this deal. The A’s needed offense, they had just signed Hideki Matsui they of course had earlier acquired DeJesus from the Royals and now this was their big coup d’etat, the acquisition of a true big bat for the middle of the order. While it seemingly created a logjam of sorts in the outfield it became clear relatively quickly that the move would see Ryan Sweeney fall into a backup role that’d be shared with Conor Jackson and that Chris Carter would need to win a job in spring training and wasn’t going to be handed left field. David Golebiewski said this of the deal when it was consummated,

“A so-so outfield prospect [Brown] and a lottery ticket reliever [Rodriguez] 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 Nationals at the time were looking for a salary dump as it seemed they may have their eyes on picking up a stud pitcher, Zack Greinke and Carl Pavano were two names being floated around as just a few days earlier their quixotic bid to land Cliff Lee ended with his signing in Philadelphia. They accomplished that in sending Willingham to Oakland, and Golebiewski’s description of the return is accurate. Corey Brown was coming off a year where he split time between Midland and Sacramento posting solid .320/.415/.502 line in the Texas League with 10 home runs in 386 plate appearances with a .427 wOBA and 163 wRC+ – the problem really being that he posted those numbers as a 24 year old. He spent the other half of his season with Sacramento where he posted decidedly poorer numbers against Triple-A hurlers with a .193/.253/.378 slash line with five home runs in 148 plate appearance and sporting a feeble .274 wOBA and 54 wRC+. Rodriguez meanwhile came blessed with an incredible fastball, having had an average 98.8 mph fastball in 2010, yet with little aim as to where it went (4.3 BB/9 in his career to that point). Probably scared out of their minds – though in fairness Rodriguez did have some filthy stuff – batters struck out against Rodriguez to the tune of 10.5 K/9 by the time he came to Washington. In their one year in Washington (not a full season for either, Rodriguez spent time in both Harrisburg and Syracuse, while Brown spent nearly the entire season in Syracuse) Brown had three plate appearances in which two resulted in strikeouts and one in a fly out to left field. Together that made him worth -0.1 WAR for the Nats. Rodriguez on the other hand spent much more time in our nation’s capital appearing in 59 games and posting a 3.56 ERA with a 3.24 FIP. He continued to struggle with his control – in fact it got worse going to 6.5 BB/9 – but kept up his high K/9 totals getting 9.6 K/9. His year ended with him worth 0.6 WAR no doubt aided by an incredibly low 0.1 HR.9, as of the 221 pitchers we threw at least 65 innings, only four had fewer HR/9 than Rodriguez. Washington’s one year total for the trade: 0.5 WAR.

Willingham meanwhile became the lone true longball threat on a light-hitting club. While his K% went through the roof to 26.6% (his previous career high had been 20.7%) he smacked 29 home runs despite the marine layer and posted a solid .232 ISO. Along with his climbing K% his BB% slipped below double digits (9.9%) for the first time in his career since 2006 (9.4%). His slash line was a satisfactory .246/.332/.477 with a .350 wOBA and 123 wRC+. He played a poor left field and ended up worth 2.1 WAR. While there was talk of bringing Willingham back on an extension and though there appeared to be mutual interest in such a deal – the economics of the A’s stadium decision made Billy Beane hesitant to offer a deal and it appears that in all likelihood Willingham will be a free-agent where someone will be willing to pay him a lot of money and give him three or possibly even four guaranteed years. In the latest reverse-engineered Elias Rankings from MLBTradeRumors.com it appears that Willingham will be a Type-A free-agent meaning that the A’s ought to receive two draft picks – I have to make the assumption that they would offer him arbitration, and I’d be equally surprised if the aging Willingham accepted it – the first round pick of the club that signs Willingham (I wouldn’t be surprised if a team like Boston went after him – though it is conceivable a team with a protected first round pick could go out and sign him) and a supplemental pick. Therefore the A’s have gained the 2.2 WAR of Willingham’s 2011 season along with the future value of those two picks which using this cool article by Sky Andrecheck at Baseball Analysts as a guide, suggests the A’s will get two picks with the first worth about 2.0 and the second worth as much as 5.8 WAR for a total value range of 4.0 WAR to 7.8 WAR. Again let’s assume they spend half their WAR generating years with Oakland and that means we receive about 2.0 WAR to 3.9 WAR of value in return for a total of 4.2 to 6.1 WAR of value back from Washington altogether.

It seems highly unlikely that a reliever like Rodriguez or an already old prospect in Corey Brown who spent most of 2011 posting a .235/.326/.402 year with a .322 wOBA and 96 wRC+ in Syracuse of the International League are going to put up a combined production of near 4.2 WAR during their tenure in Washington. It seems that this rental, though it did not pan out as anticipated was overall a good deal and smart move for Oakland though only time will tell as we wait to see how these draft picks actually pan out.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Genaro permalink
    October 6, 2011 7:23 pm

    The problem I have with the Willingham situation is two-fold: his power plays in any stadium so the real question was whether his performance could translate to the AL, and even in his first month, he had a 750+ OPS. At that moment, the thought process should include consideration of a contract extension but that was not the case.

    One thing to consider about Willingham’s K-rates is that this season represented the his first in the American League and that while he was always a 20+ K% player, the fact that 2011 was a situation where he faced the most pitchers in his division with the top k:9 rates in the respective league certainly explains why the rate jumped. That is to say the AL West top k:9 pitchers represented the bulk of his K’s.

    • October 7, 2011 1:46 am

      Genaro –

      I agree the time to extend Willingham was earlier in the year.

      I agree that Willingham’s gaining familiarity with a new league played into his higher K%. For the first half his K% was up at 29.7% whereas the 2nd half it was much closer to his career mark (21.0%) at 23.8% – the second half in my estimation reflecting a growing familiarity with the pitchers. It is interesting to think that the AL West has a lot more higher K/9 pitchers and that is a really solid point i hadn’t considered until you mentioned it. But that there could account for the second half mark being elevated despite a gained familiarity. Great point! Thanks for reading, I really appreciate your insight.

      Overall would you do this trade again? I assume yes given that you’d want to extend Willingham, it seems your issue is more with the follow-through after the trade as opposed to the deal itself. Am I correct in that assumption?

      • Genaro permalink
        October 7, 2011 3:15 am

        No problem David, I’ve enjoyed reading the blog as the detailed analysis is much more than what you can get right now from other places, especially since the season just ended.

        You are correct, I did like the trade although I really hadn’t considered whether I would do it again knowing what we know now in terms of returning value. One could argue that the A’s could have packaged those players in a deal for a player with more cost-control. I guess the best thing that could have happened with the A’s not wanting to retain Willingham is that they didn’t trade him for a hodge-podge of prospects and are took the picks instead.

      • October 7, 2011 12:54 pm

        Thanks for your compliment. I agree with you, I think had Willingham been dealt the market just didn’t seem favorable to getting anything of true value back. The picks need to be smart, but I think we did pretty well in the deal giving up an uncertain talent in Rodriguez and an even less sure of a thing in Corey Brown.

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