Monday, December 6, 2010, 7:41 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Washington Nationals' signing of Jayson Werth to a massive, 126 million contract could have a profound domino effect on the club's overall plan for the rest of the offseason. It opens the door for other prominent free agents to take the Nationals seriously after previously considering the perennial last-place club an afterthought.
It could also open the door for the Nationals to deal away one of their established, everyday players.
Werth's signing creates a logjam of sorts in Washington's outfield, and Josh Willingham could wind up as the odd man out. Several clubs have expressed interest in acquiring the 31-year-old, and general manager Mike Rizzo is amenable to making a deal if he gets the right package in return.
"I guess with the addition of an outfielder, it would make another outfielder a little bit more comfortable to move, if you get the right deal," Rizzo said on the first official day of the Winter Meetings. "But Josh Willingham is not just any outfielder. He's a good, productive player, and a guy that we're going to have to get the right deal in return to move him."
Rizzo would almost certainly be looking to acquire a pitcher in exchange for Willingham, ideally a starter. The outfielder, who is eligible to become a free agent next winter, may not be able to command that kind of return alone, so the Nationals might have to package him with another player to consummate a deal.
There is interest in Willingham, though, from several clubs, according to league sources. The Boston Red Sox, in particular, covet a player like Willingham who both hits for power and posts a high on-base percentage. And having come up short in the Werth derby, the Red Sox are in need of another outfielder.
Other clubs who have expressed interest in Willingham, according to league sources, include the Colorado Rockies, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Baltimore Orioles (who would consider him as a possible first baseman).
What's the Nationals' rationale for exploring a Willingham trade? They don't appear interested in locking him up with a long-term deal, concerned about his inability to stay healthy for a full season and concerned about his long-term prospects as a left fielder. Though they could wait until the July 31 trade deadline to make a move or simply let Willingham walk as a free agent next winter and accept draft picks as compensation, they might be able to acquire more for his services now with other clubs getting him for a full season.
Willingham has been a remarkably consistent player through his career. In each of his five full seasons in the big leagues, he's posted an OPS between .827 and .863.
"We know what we have with Josh Willingham," Rizzo said. "We know what his productivity is. We know what he brings to us on the field and in the clubhouse. So we have to weigh that against: What would we get if we were to trade the player? It's an open-ended question, but that's always the question you have to ask yourself."
The Nationals do have some outfield depth now that puts them in a better position to compensate for a Willingham trade. With Werth locked up in right field and Nyjer Morgan entering 2011 as the starting center fielder according to manager Jim Riggleman, Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse will have a hard time finding at-bats.
But if Willingham is dealt, the Nationals would be comfortable using both Bernadina (whose best position is left field) and Morse in a platoon at that spot.
"I think Bernie played his best baseball defensively in left, did OK in right, did fine in center," Riggleman said. "But I thought he really excelled in left field. You know, Josh is out there, so Bernie is going to be fighting for at-bats."