Thursday, December 16, 2010, 1:55 p.m., Updated at 3:41 p.m., Updated at 5:52 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEO
The Washington Nationals dealt left fielder Josh Willingham to the Oakland Athletics for a pair of young players this afternoon, a trade that advanced general manager Mike Rizzo's mission to field a more athletic, defensively gifted roster next year.
In exchange for Willingham, 31, the Nationals are receiving right-hander Henry Rodriguez (a hard-throwing reliever who surpassed the 100 mph mark late last season in Oakland) and outfielder Corey Brown (a gifted 25-year-old who dominated the lower levels of the minor leagues but struggled upon reaching Class AAA this year).
Willingham, who hit .268 with 16 homers and 56 RBI in 114 games this season before undergoing knee surgery in August, was due to become a free agent at the end of 2011, and the Nationals were reluctant to sign him to an extension. His durability has been a concern in the past, and his play in left field was average at best.
Several teams inquired about the veteran's availability at last week's Winter Meetings in Orlando, including the A's and Red Sox, but the framework of this deal only came together in the last few days. There also had been interest last summer before the July 31 trade deadline, but the Nationals weren't keen on what was being offered at the time.
"We felt that this was an attractive package that we have right now," Rizzo said. "It was a better package than we got last year at the trade deadline for Josh. So we felt like this was an opportunity for us to really cement a big-armed relief pitcher at 23 years old and a toolsy outfielder that hits from the left side. It was more on the side of the return that we got for Josh now as opposed to what the returns were at the trade deadline last year."
Willingham, whom the Nationals acquired from the Florida Marlins along with left-hander Scott Olsen prior to the 2009 season, knew his name had been coming up in trade discussions and knew there was little chance of a long-term deal in Washington.
"I wasn't really surprised," he told A's reporters on a conference call. "I sort of expected to be traded during the Winter Meetings. It didn't happen; it died down a little bit. I'm excited because I know what Oakland has: really, really, good young pitching, and they've already upgraded the lineup a little with the acquisitions before adding myself. So I'm excited. This organization is ready to win, and the moves they made proved they're ready to win as well."
As currently constructed, the Nationals will likely use a combination of Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse in left field, though Rizzo said that could still change over the course of the winter. Team officials have long believed Bernadina, who hit .246 with 11 homers and 47 RBI in 134 games as a rookie, is best suited defensively to play left field. Morse, who hit .289 with 15 homers and 41 RBI in 98 games, could serve as a right-handed platoon with Bernadina in left field and also see some time in right field, at first base and off the bench.
"We feel that the productivity between Bernadina and Morse should be consistent with what we've had there in the past," said Rizzo, who also added top free agent right fielder Jayson Werth to the roster last week. "I think with Bernadina out there, we certainly have supreme defense in left field and a really athletic, defensive outfield."
Neither player acquired was ranked as one of Oakland's top 10 prospects this winter by Baseball America, but each has upside and could play in Washington this season.
Rodriguez, a hard-throwing right-hander, appeared in 29 games for Oakland over the last two seasons, posting a combined 4.26 ERA while striking out 37 in 31 23 innings. The 23-year-old reliever, who threw a fastball 103 mph this year, has notched incredibly strong strikeout numbers in the minors and has struck out 27 batters in 20 13 innings this winter pitching in his native Venezuela.
Rodriguez is out of minor-league options, so the Nationals see him as a likely member of the Opening Day bullpen, with a chance to pitch in a setup or even closer's role in time.
"He's a guy we've scouted a lot lately," Rizzo said. "We see a big, physical, big-armed guy, with two 'plus-plus' pitches, 23 years old, and a guy we feel can fit comfortably in our bullpen, now and for years to come."
Brown, the 59th overall pick in the 2007 draft, is a gifted center fielder who hit 30 home runs in Class A in 2008 and then hit .320 at Class AA last season before seeing his batting average drop to .193 in 41 late-season games at Class AAA. The 25-year-old probably needs more seasoning but could be a potential long-term answer in center field for the Nationals.
"He dominated the Double-A level very well," Rizzo said. "He dominated the Arizona Fall League. We feel that he's going to adjust quite comfortably to Triple-A and ultimately will help us out on the big-league roster in the near future."