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November 11, 2008

Transaction of the Day

The Olsen and Willingham Deal

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

FLORIDA MARLINS
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Acquired 2B-S Emilio Bonifacio, 2B-R Jake Smolinski, and RHP P.J. Dean from the Nationals for LHP Scott Olsen and LF-R Josh Willingham. [11/11]

Like the Jacobs trade made immediately after the World Series, this is a pretty transparent salary dump, though it's sort of a dump with benefits. In concert, the two moves may well make Marlins fans-the unhappy few of you that there are-think that we're entering into a mild variant on the '98 teardown. That's not an unreasonable fear, because just as in the Jacobs deal the Fish didn't appear to really get a lot of talent with the potential to help them all that much. It's easy to overstate this handicap in the deal and focus on the money, but we'll get to the talent received in a bit.

First, the most significant achievement this deal provides the team is the successful avoidance of another pair of arbitration cases, and just as with Jacobs, the matter of who they're avoiding paying seven figures to matters quite a bit. Between Willingham's advanced age for only a three-year regular-he'll be turning 30 around the time that pitchers and catchers report-and the persistent questions over Olsen's makeup, arm, and consistency, we're talking about a pair of players that you might forgive a team's preferring to make somebody else's expensive, potential problems. That's an element that's fundamental to what the Fish have been doing this last year: they're making choices about who they can afford, and whether that's Hanley Ramirez's six-year, $70 million extension or the increasing probability that now, having dealt the right sorts, they'll be able to afford the arbitration cases to come (or more modest extensions) for the players who are more significant to the team's immediate future, guys such as Dan Uggla and Josh Johnson. This may not be the last of these moves-the Fish have an ungodly number of arb-eligibles-but if they continue to identify and sensibly prune the guys they can replace while retaining the ones they can't, this isn't really all that much like 1998, it's operating within limited means while still fielding a good, perhaps even improving, ballclub. When and if they deal Kevin Gregg to move a fourth arb-eligible, they'll have made another sensible flip with an eye towards both the bottom line and the player's relative replaceability.

Second, take a look at what excusing Willingham from the lineup and Olsen from the rotation does for this team. With Willingham out of the way, left field has been opened up for Cody Ross to move to, as Ross gets out of the way for the much-anticipated arrival of Cameron Maybin in center. That's expected to improve the defense considerably, not because Ross is a massive upgrade on Willingham, but because Maybin's a legitimate gap-to-gap center fielder with an arm good enough to freeze people on the bases. Ross hasn't been quite the hitter Willingham has been, with a 2008 EqA of .275 to Willingham's .289, but he's younger and his long-term projection from before the 2008 season makes for a nice suggestion that he can take it up a notch to get up around Willingham's production in the next few seasons.

While Ross in what will be his age-28 season versus Willingham in his age-30 season ought to be a push, I don't want to suggest that the Fish won't end up taking a few hits offensively. Bonifacio's bat isn't going to keep him in a lineup, essentially making him nothing more than a slick-fielding filler of the type that you unload before arbitration gets him overpaid for what he is relative to the rest of the second basemen in the world. Before this season, Bonifacio's seven-year forecast called for Equivalent Averages in the .240s and .250s in the years to come, the very definition of adequacy. That's not a career-killing quality, not if you don't have other things to bring to the mix, and Bonifacio has a wee bit of speed beyond his exceptional ability around the bag as a second baseman. If he's the worst player in your lineup, you might be able to do more than just win despite him; in this he's sort of a latter-day Womack, only with better defense and less speed. For a team like the Fish, with a need to improve their defense and with financial concerns to take into consideration, he'll do.

So, take a step back, and consider the moves in concert. They've basically swapped out Jacobs, Willingham, and way too much playing time for utilityman Alfredo Amezaga in center to potentially make room for Bonifacio at second and Maybin in center-with Uggla moving to first base (or third) and Ross shifting to left, have you really lost anything? Offensively, not really all that much. We've dealt with Ross versus Willingham, so take a look at the other proposed swaps in terms of relative lineup significance. Before this year, Maybin was projected to post EqAs at least in the .270s in 2009 and beyond; Jacobs delivered a .273 EqA last yea, Bonifacio's projections put him in the .240s, and Amezaga delivered a .242 EqA in 2008. Even if Bonifacio and Maybin struggle a bit-and they probably will-the improvements on defense should dwarf whatever's been lost by deleting Jacobs and Willingham and reducing Amezaga's role. Bonifacio and Ross become the replaceable parts in this design, but finding a left fielder who can hit or a second baseman better than Bonifacio represent relatively modest challenges in roster redesign.

Another way to look at the deal is what it means to the team in terms of roster space: the Fish net an additional spot by trading two players on their 40-man for one (Bonifacio), while the pair of maybes are so far down in the farm system and so early on in their careers as 2007 picks that they won't have to be added to the 40-man roster for another couple of years. That stuff has value, and given how much this decision is being driven by considerations of service time and how it drives salaries, crediting GM Michael Hill and team president Larry Beinfest for keeping an eye on the timetables during which the organization will control players' careers is worth bringing up, if not really getting worked up over.

That's because neither Dean nor Smolinski is a blue-chip prospect, but they're also more than just two guys who are young and have enough gifts to play pro ball at the lowest levels. Smolinski was picked in the second round in 2007's draft, Dean in the seventh; both were high school players, and both have yet to log full years in full-season leagues. The Nats initially pushed the 19-year-old Smolinski up to Low-A Hagerstown in the full-season Sally League before demoting him to the Short-season New York-Penn League once its schedule started up. To the kid's credit, he did well enough at the upper level (.261/.338/.402) and shined at the lower one (.306/.370/.408). He gets high marks for his plate coverage, and last year's Baseball America Prospect Handbook noted that scouts anticipate that his power will develop as he fills out. Given that he played shortstop and quarterback in high school, according to Kevin Goldstein he appears to have the athleticism to handle second base. Given that he'll be only 20 next year and heading into a full-season league, it's very likely that he'll turn out to be the genuinely valuable player received in the deal-not Bonifacio. Dean's an arm, a stringy Texan teen who turned 20 just last month. He did fine in his assignment to Vermont (where he played with Smolinski), logging 10 starts and overpowering the league with a low-90s fastball and improving off-speed stuff. He allowed just 43 baserunners and 10 runs in 46 IP while striking out 34, so it's fair to say there's something there, and if he survives heavier workloads and better competition, he might also become a factor.

In short, I like this deal for the Marlins more than I expected to on first blush, and like how it represents another step in an active plan to work around some of their specific problems with talent and payroll.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Purchased the contracts of RHP Luis Atilano, SS-R Ian Desmond, and OF/3B Leonard Davis. [11/20]
Acquired LHP Scott Olsen and LF-R Josh Willingham from the Marlins for 2B-S Emilio Bonifacio, 2B-R Jake Smolinski, and RHP P.J. Dean. [11/11]

For a team that has money to spend but might not have all that much attraction to free agents hoping to land in more competitive organizations, an off-season decision tree can get pretty snarly. Arbitration will invariably eat into some of your willingness to expand a budget, and plowing money into player development, however sensible, makes for delayed gratification. So what's a bad team trying to punch up its roster to do? They can do exactly what the Nats' brass has done here-deal for other people's increasingly expensive players, perhaps cutting ahead of even wealthier clubs, and using that financial muscle to acquire players who might not have elected to sign with you had they the freedom to do so.

The potentially more significant of the pair picked up is also the more unpredictable: Olsen's career has been up and down, veering between promise really not delivered since his first full season, and perhaps best characterized as utility in the form of regularly taking his turns. Even so, Olsen's .524 per-start rate of SNLVA in 2008 would have been the second-best mark on the Nats, behind only John Lannan's .560, and better than free agent-to-be Odalis Perez's .509 (whom Olsen essentially replaces), or Tim Redding's .500. That sound pretty modest, but consider that Olsen's SNLVA_R was a vile .400 in 2007 (making him the worst 30-start pitcher in the game that season, that after a .553 mark in 2006, and you understand the kind of quicksilver the Nats have gotten from the Fish.

To add to the mystery, there's the issue of Olsen's plummeting strikeout rates (from 8.3 K/9 in 2006 to 6.8 in '07 to 5.0 last season), and how that tracks with his similar drops in velocity on his fastball, down to around 88 last season when it had sat around 90 before. Perhaps unsurprisingly (or perhaps as a matter of diagnostic limitations) he appeared to rely much more on a changeup this past season than he ever had before. Part of the sales pitch is that his velocity picked up in September, but if it did, it didn't necessarily help that much: he managed three quality starts in his last five, or five in his last 11, if you want to go with August and September. Add in the past problems with John Law (notably a DUI), and you've got a pitcher whose perceived value probably far outstrips his actual performance, someone who might be an asset as a third or fourth starter. I bring up the maturity question here because this is someone who now might instead be the best that the Nats have. (As Marc Normandin noted in September, there's reason to fear for Lannan's future.) While he's coming to a nice park for pitching, he's also leaving one behind, having put up a career ERA of 4.07 in Dolphins Stadium, against 5.35 everywhere else.

Admittedly, the Nats probably weren't going to land a quality starting pitcher this winter, and probably aren't going to be able to woo one in the immediate future. So, in addressing their need to shore up their rotation, that means taking on some element of risk. Olsen's rookie season back in 2006 speaks to an awful lot of promise, promise we haven't really seen since, as he first regressed to horrifyingly bad and then stepped up to mediocrity last season, and that despite declining peripherals that suggest he got a lot of help from his defense. While it's swell that the Nats want to take on some payroll, and while Olsen could be worth the risk, I'm reminded of similar-and subsequently expensive-moves that Nats GM Jim Bowden made trading for Ryan Dempster during 2002 and overpaying for Jimmy Haynes that following winter. While everyone can point to successes-like his taking a chance on Esteban Loaiza in 2005-failures like these, or similarly expensive wishcasting over guys like Zach Day or Ryan Drese only highlight the danger and the difficulty of trying to get by in your rotation.

So what of Willingham? You might think that the last thing the Nats would need is a 30-year-old left fielder. They've still got the bounty of Bowden's mass acquisition of everyone else's young, troubled outfield talent, after all, with Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, and Wily Mo Pena knocking around in an outfield that will also employ Willy Harris and Austin Kearns. From among that crew, however, only Milledge should be set (as the center fielder), but beyond that, the Nats only owe these guys money, and can afford to let talent sort itself out. Kearns is only committed through 2009, and he'll need to improve on his last couple of seasons to deserve playing time; Dukes has to prove he can stay healthy; Pena has to prove to be something more than the celluloid legend of Pedro Cerrano made flesh.

With that much uncertainty, the comparatively established Willingham provides a bit of predictability, a combination of power and OBP that the lineup needs. Evaluations of his defense in left have veered all over the place; whether you use Revised Zone Rating or Plus/Minus or Clay Davenport's FRAA/FRAR, the results are mixed, to the point that we can probably just go with a more scouty evaluation that he's good enough for left, while at least bringing a pretty good throwing arm to the position. If left field is his destination, the Nats can afford to push the other guys around; however, with the ongoing concerns over the health of both Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if Willingham, a former catcher, wound up playing a lot of first base. At either slot, his bat's useful, but at 30, it'll only be useful over the next couple of seasons, timing out perhaps quite nicely (at least as far as the Nats are concerned) by the time he's eligible for free agency after the 2011 season.

As pickups go, not only does this deal represent a worthwhile decision to add young veterans who can help improve the club, it also represents a better course than the path not taken, at least not so far this winter. What I'm getting at is that, with this trade, the Nats have made a move that helps them avoid the trap that's been killing the Orioles for years: signing middling to unemployable free agents who will take their money and merely mark time, instead of bringing a team with aspirations of improvement the kind of talent that can make a difference in the club's fortunes. Given that he'll already be 30 by Opening Day, Josh Willingham will almost certainly never become a real star, but he's also not Marty Cordova or Kevin Millar-yet. (If, three years from now, he left as a free agent, it's about then that he would have been old enough to be an Oriole if they hadn't started coming to their senses on Andy MacPhail's watch.)

Finally, there's an inconvenience as a matter of roster management-Monday's additions to the 40-man filled up the roster, and dealing only one player (Bonifacio) off of it while bringing in two who will have to be added means that someone's going to have to be outrighted, or that there could be a decision to non-tender somebody instead of offering arbitration, or perhaps someone gets dealt in a ticky-tack minor trade. This doesn't have to be that big of a deal-between last summer's mass acquisition of other people's crummy middle infielders and less-than-middling pitching suspects, plus more than a few organizational soldiers knocking around on the 40-man, the Nats should be able to make a choice that doesn't hurt them easily enough.

To recap, I respect what the Nats are doing here, and we should understand that they need to take some risks if they want to get close to an 80-win team that might at least reclaim some local sentiment. I also allow that they didn't give up all that much to make this happen. However, Olsen could easily prove to be a pig in a poke, and Willingham's not really an improvement as much as he is a promise of stability for an outfield/first-base situation that could use some.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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