As mentioned in my Mark DeRosa article earlier this week, first baseman Chris Marrero suffered a torn hamstring a few weeks ago while playing for the Licey Tigers in the Dominican Winter League. Provided the Nationals did not pick up a big-name free agent to play the position (i.e Prince Fielder), Marrero was projected to fight for the starting job in 2012, with slugger Michael Morsemoving out to left field.
But with this injury, it is unclear who will play first, which could have an effect on who will play left field. On the official Nationals depth chart, Morse is listed as the starter at both first base and left field. Obviously that is not possible, so someone else will need to fill one of the positions. Most speculate that either Adam LaRoche or a big-ticket player like Fielder will take the reins at first, and that Morse will bethe team’s next left fielder. However, I propose another solution.
As I’ve mentioned, many of our staff members (myself included) do not think Fielder is the answer at first base. He will demand a big contract, and the team has bigger needs to fill (namely center field and a quality starting pitcher). However, we do not think the team should settle for mediocre players playing in starting roles. So, I propose that, as a more cost-effective option than Fielder, the Nationals bring back the Hammer himself, Josh Willingham.
Now, I personally do not like Willingham, as he shunned me amidst an autograph request at a game, just to go talk to Ivan Rodriguez in left field. But, I cannot deny that the man’s got game. Last year he played in a pitcher-friendly park in Oakland, but he still posted solid numbers, boasting 29 home runs, 98 RBIs, and a .262 batting average in 136 games. This was a significant improvement over his 16 home runs, 54 RBIs, and .268 batting average in 2008 with Washington. Now, his 2010 numbers are not as jaw-dropping as Fielder’s 38 homers, 120 RBIs, and .299 average, but Willingham also comes at a much smaller price. Willingham projects to get a two-year deal in the $16-17 million range (average of $8-8.5 million per year), while Fielder projects to get a 6-7 year deal at significantly more than $100 million (averaging atleast $23 million a season).
This signing will be more beneficial than a Fielder signing in many ways. For starters, there’s always the risk of a free agent-flub, meaning that a big-name free agent doesn’t live up to the contract they signed. Do the Nationals really need another Jayson Werth? I don’t expect Fielder to crash all of a sudden, but for $24 million, there’s always that thought in the back of my mind. With Willingham, at least the dollar amount, though still high compared to other players, is not even near as much, and the contract is much shorter, getting the Nationals out of the deal quicker if Willingham proves unproductive.
There is also the case that signing Willingham will leave money left over if the Nationals want to sign Mark Buehrle or another front-line starter. Buehrle’s contract projects to be for 2 or 3 years, getting Buehrle about $15 million a season. Whether Buehrle is worth that or not, you can make your own decision. But, there’s no argument against the fact that he is one of the best starting pitchers in this year’s free agent class, and will be paid as such. Other potential targets such as C.J. Wilson, Yu Darvish (potentially), and James Shields (via trade) will get paid big money, so if the Nationals are going to pursue one of them, they will need to have that extra cash to make sure they can afford him.
The third reason that Willingham is a better option than Fielder is that Fielder can NOT play defense. Remember back in 2009 and 2010, when Adam Dunn was the first baseman? Pressure was put upon mediocre middle infielders to be perfect fielders, being forced to make perfect throws because their first baseman was a left fielder. Well, having Fielder at first base would be quite a similar situation.
Let me share a few numbers with you. In 2011, Fielder committed 15 errors, which led the league amongst first basemen. Fielder also posted a .990 fielding percentage, which was also a league-worst at first base. Ironic, isn’t it? You’d expect the Prince of Fielding to live up to his title ….
Anyhow, although the same argument could be made for Morse, obviously he did better than Dunn, and has more chemistry with the Washington infield than Fielder. Signing Willingham keeps Morse at first base.
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that Fielder is a bad player, nor am I trying to say that Willingham will lead the Nationals to a World Series, or even a division title. But, with what the Nationals have right now, Willingham makes more sense. Plain and simple, this tool set is looking pretty nice; now all we need is a Hammer.