Josh Willingham: The Hammer Moves to Oakland

by Eno Sarris // 

Josh Willingham will be 32 next season and in his final year of arbitration, but the Oakland Athletics saw enough there to trade two fringe prospects for him on Thursday. Perhaps they liked his consistency at the plate.

josh_willingham-300x168.jpgFor the last four years, the Hammer’s full-year statistics in some key categories have not wavered much. Check out his walk rate – it has gone from a ‘low’ four years ago at 10.9% to a high of 14.9% last year. His strikeout rate has stayed in a tight range, 23% to 24.3%, and his isolated slugging percentage has been between .192 and .237 over the past four years. The overall package is one that doesn’t wow anyone from a fantasy perspective (he’s never hit more than 26 home runs or better than .277). But Willingham works well as a late-round mixed league outfielder or a stable deep-league bat. He’s predictable.

How will he fare in his new digs? His FanGraphs splits show that he’s a pull hitter – he has a .810 career slugging percentage to left field (compared to .320 to right field). The Nationals’ park was 337 feet to left field and 377 feet to left-center, so it counts as good news that the Oakland Coliseum is 330 feet to left and 367 to left-center. However, dimensions aren’t everything – the Nationals’ park had a 100 park factor for home runs by a righty last year, and the Coliseum a 77 in that category (ESPN’s three-year park factor for all batters was .872). Whether it’s the weather or some other factor, it was definitely difficult for righties to hit it out of the Coliseum last year. So it’s not likely that Willingham will set a career high in home runs at his age and in that ballpark.

In return for Willingham, the Nationals will receive two prospects who were not among Baseball America’s top 10 for the Athletics. Right-handed reliever O’ Henry Rodriguez throws gas (98.8 MPH on the fastball, career) and can strike batters out (more than a strikeout per inning every stop). But he’s also had some trouble with control (4.26 BB/9 IP in his short MLB career, 6.6 BB/9 IP in the minor leagues). If his high but manageable major league walk rate holds, he could be a force at the back of a pen. Drew Storen will likely get most of the save chances for the Nats to begin the season, though.

Minor league outfielder Corey Brown projects as a fourth outfielder and injury fill-in, though with some potential to eke out a starting corner outfield job at some point. As a three-year college hitter, his numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, but he’s done well at Double-A in a mostly-neutral run environment for two years now (.269/.348/.488 and .320/.415/.502 in 2009 and 2010 in the Texas league, respectively). He walks (11.3% career), has power (.225 career ISO), and speed (48 stolen bases against only eight caught stealing). The problem is that he doesn’t make great contact (31%), so don’t bet on a good batting average. He’s improved that number recently (it’s hovered around 28% the last two years), but the major leagues will boost those strikeouts and keep Brown from being a mixed-league option, at least for now.

With Willingham’s muted upside, Rodriguez’s control issues, and Brown’s strikeouts, each player has a flaw that makes for a tough draft decision. Pick up Willingham late in standard mixed leagues; take a wait-and-see approach on Rodriguez and Brown.

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