One of the more under-the-radar deals of the off-season involved two low-budget teams looking to gain ground in the NL East. On Novemeber 11th of last year the Marlins sent Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen to the Nationals for Emilio Bonifacio and two prospects. The Marlins avoided having to go to arbitration with two players who had enough playing bulk and quality numbers to get decent-sized contracts. In return they received a young, cost-controlled infielder who would provide speed, a quick bat, and solid defense, while also allowing them to shift Jorge Cantu, a terrible third baseman defensively, over to first base. The prospects the Fish got back were second baseman Jake Smolinski, rated by Baseball America as the Nats best hitter for average in their minor league system, and pitcher P.J. Dean, a 19-year old with a 1.57 ERA pitching in short-season A ball in 2008. For the Marlins, this must’ve been reminiscent of the Willis/Cabrera deal on a much smaller scale. They would deal a pitcher and a hitter whom they felt they no longer could afford for cheaper, younger talent to help them in the future. They were also all too happy to deal Olsen, a pitcher they once had high hopes for but had numerous legal and clubhouse issues that put him in the papers for all the wrong reasons.
However, since the start of the season there has been little question that the Nationals got the better end of the deal. Willingham, who had posted wOBAs of .364, .365, .363 over the past three years, has finally broken out in a big way. He’s walking at the highest rate of his career to go along with his highest LD rate (21.4%), giving him a .427(!) wOBA for the year. Although his defense isn’t strong, it isn’t a harbinger either. He’s cost the Nationals only -2.2 runs while playing both right and left field, giving him 3.0 WAR for the year in only 85 games played. His production hasn’t exactly been the tipping point for Washington’s season, but he will surely be a valued commodity in the future for a reasonable price. Olsen had a 4.89 xFIP for 2009 (his lowest since 2006), and seemed to be righting himself off the field as well. However, season-ending surgery cut his year short.
The Marlins, on the other hand, have felt the brunt of this trade. Fighting to stay in the Wild Card hunt, they have watched Bonifacio step up to the plate 456 times and hit at a .246/.297/.308 clip, becoming the worst regular in the majors. His defense at third has been worse than Willingham’s in the outfield with a -5.4 UZR/150 for the season. He’s been worth -.6 WAR, all the while manning a position that usually has a good amount of quality hitters. Although Smolinski has played relatively well, Dean hasn’t pitched thus far this year. But here’s the kicker. Last week, the Marlins ironically had to deal their 15th best prospect (according to John Sickels), Aaron Thompson, to the Nationals (of all teams) for Nick Johnson, who basically fits the Willingham-mold and will replace Bonifacio in the lineup.
It’s hard to criticize the Marlins. They’ve won two World Series since their inception and usually have a great eye for young talent. However, they sold far too low on Willingham and Olsen, and ironically cancelled out any advantage they had in the prospect portion of the deal by trading Thompson, a better player than either of the ones they got back, for Nick Johnson, whom they basically already had in Willingham. I understand why general managers decide to trade guys in the off-season; they are concerned about injuries, bad performance, or a weak market hurting the value they can get back for their players. However, there was really no reason to believe any of those things would affect Willingham. Besides an injury stint to start 2008, he had been healthy enough to produce 2.4 WAR last year, and if he had even come close to that line this year he would have been a nifty pickup for any contender near July 31st. Moreover, it would give the Marlins time to see if they even wanted to trade Willingham, which they wouldn’t have done considering their place in the standings and how tremendously he’s played for Washington. Some of this would be mitigated if they had gotten solid value back, but Bonifacio has proven himself to be inept at providing positive value for the team he’s playing for. There haven’t been too many bright days in Washington, but somewhere Jim Bowden is smiling about his highway robbery of Michael Hill.