By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 12:03 AM
The Washington Nationals traded left fielder Josh Willingham to the Oakland Athletics on Thursday for two young prospects, swapping a proven, power-hitting left fielder with one year remaining on his contract for a fireballing reliever who likely will begin the year in the Nationals' bullpen and an athletic minor league outfielder.
In return for Willingham, the Nationals received right-hander Henry Rodriguez, 23, and outfielder Corey Brown, 25. Rodriguez appeared in 29 major league games last season, while Brown reached Class AAA Sacramento.
The Nationals have been open to offers for Willingham all offseason. Willingham, 31, is currently arbitration-eligible and will become eligible for free agency after next season. Willingham hoped to sign a multiyear extension and stay in Washington, but General Manager Mike Rizzo decided against a long-term deal with Willingham, who is coming off knee surgery and has a history of back problems. So, before losing Willingham next year in free agency, Rizzo decided to trade him.
Rizzo listened to offers on Willingham as early as July's trade deadline. He received calls from three or four teams, including the Boston Red Sox, at the winter meetings this month, but those discussions never blossomed into formal proposals. Oakland General Manager Billy Beane called Rizzo this week, and his offer trumped any Rizzo had heard, dating from last year.
"A lot of things went into the decision to trade Josh now, instead of waiting through spring training or waiting to the trade deadline," Rizzo said. "We felt that this was an attractive offer. It was a better package than we got last year at the trade deadline for Josh."
The key piece to the trade was Rodriguez, who possesses one of the most powerful arms in baseball. His average fastball during major league games last season clocked 98.45 mph, the fourth-fastest average in the majors. He threw one fastball 103.2 mph, the third-fastest pitch of the 2010 major league season.
Rodriguez has the ability to strike out batters but has suffered control problems. In 272/3 major league innings last season, Rodriguez went 1-0 with a 4.55 ERA. He struck out 33, but also walked 13.
"This arm we got has got some power," Nationals first base coach Dan Radison, who has managed against Rodriguez in Venezuela, said via e-mail. "When he plays long toss, the coach has to use a fungo [bat] to get it back to him."
Rodriguez also has experience as a closer. He saved 11 games in Class AAA last season. He is currently pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he has five saves and 27 strikeouts in 201/3 innings over 17 appearances.
"From everything we've seen, we believe that Rodriguez is going to make our big league club in our bullpen," Rizzo said. "We foresee him down the road as a guy who has the possibility to pitch in the back end of a game, either set up [Drew] Storen in the eighth inning or pitch in the ninth inning."
Brown was the 59th overall pick in 2007. He reached Class AAA this season after dominating most of the year in Class AA, but he struggled once he arrived. Brown hit .283 with an on-base percentage of .370 and a slugging percentage of .466 between AA and AAA with 15 home runs, 11 triples and 22 stolen bases. He struck out 129 times in 534 plate appearances.
Brown's splits between AA Midland and AAA Sacramento were large. In 90 games at Midland, he hit .320/.415/.502. In 36 games in Sacramento, he hit .193/.253/.378. Rizzo said he has observed Brown start slow at every new level.
Rizzo said trading Willingham "was not based on his salary or money whatsoever." In salary arbitration, Willingham will likely be granted a salary of roughly $6 million for the 2011 season. Last year, he earned $4.6 million in arbitration.
Willingham was a viable middle-of-the-order threat last year before a knee injury derailed his season. He was hitting .281/.411/.502 with 15 home runs in 281 at-bats through the all-star break. Shortly thereafter, he started feeling sharp pain in his left knee. He missed the final six weeks of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He has since fully healed.
In two years with the Nationals since arriving in an offseason trade from the Florida Marlins, Willingham hit .263 with a .377 on-base percentage and a .479 slugging percentage. Willingham blasted 40 home runs, surpassed among the Nationals only by Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn over that time span.
Willingham harbored no ill feelings toward the Nationals. In a phone conversation Thursday evening, he said the front office and Rizzo always treated him fairly. He was not expecting to be traded, but he wasn't surprised, either.
"I'm excited, because I think Oakland has a chance to be really good," Willingham said. "Baseball is a business. Everybody wants to do what's best for them. Washington was a place that I enjoyed. I enjoyed the people and the teammates like Adam and Zim, everybody. When you're comfy in a place, you don't want to leave."
Willingham had said he hoped to stay with Washington and sign a contract extension. But he understood the Nationals' position, and he hopes he can strike a multiyear deal with the A's.
"Am I upset that it never happened? No, I'm not upset," Willingham said. "If it was meant to be, then it would have happened. You never know what's going to happen with the A's. Maybe I'll sign a two-year deal with them. We'll just go with whatever goes."
With Willingham leaving a hole in left field, "the easy answer" would be a platoon with Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse, Rizzo said. "We feel productivity offensively should be consistent with what we've had there in the past," he said.
Bernadina, 26, has tremendous raw ability and athleticism, but in his first full season last year he hit .246/.307/.384 with 11 home runs in 414 at-bats. Morse had a breakthrough season in limited playing time, hitting .289/.352/.519 in 293 plate appearances. In his career, Morse has played only 12 games in left field, as opposed to 88 in right field.
"That's not to say we're finished this winter doing what we're trying to do," Rizzo said.
Nationals note: The team re-signed right-handed starter Chien-Ming Wang, taking a second gamble on an accomplished pitcher who hasn't thrown an official pitch since midway through 2009.
Wang signed for a guaranteed $1 million, and he could make as much as $5 million in incentives. The Nationals signed Wang, who finished second in Cy Young voting with the Yankees in 2006, for $2 million, only to watch him not throw a single pitch while recovering from major shoulder surgery.