When GM Mike Rizzo took over the Washington Nationals, one of his first big trades was when he dealt slugging outfielder Josh Willingham to the Oakland Athletics. Willingham, who came to D.C. in a trade with the then-Florida Marlins, was nothing too special for the Nationals, slashing .263/.377/.479 with 40 home runs and 117 RBIs in two seasons.
Though Willingham played only 133 and 114 games respectively in his two seasons with Washington, he was still middle-of-the-order bat who put up respectable numbers, if nothing else.
When Rizzo dealt Willingham to the A’s, which at the time was just a precursor of things to come, many fans were unhappy. Willingham was a solid player in Washington, and was able to provide some bright spots in two very bleak years with his power. Washington did receive a relatively solid return in Corey Brown and Henry Rodriguez.
Brown was a speedy outfielder capable of hitting some home runs and stealing some bases, and was thought to be one of the Nationals’ outfielders in the not too distant future. Rodriguez was a hard-thrower expected to become a huge arm in the back of the Nationals’ bullpen.
Of course, none of this was to be, as Rodriguez was nothing short of pathetic for the Nationals, posting a 4.26 ERA in his two years in Washington, showing a proficiency in throwing a pitch anywhere but the strike zone. Rodriguez struck out 9.6 batters per nine innings with the Nationals, but he also walked 6.3 batters per nine innings, and had 24 — yes, 24 — wild pitches in his two years with Washington before being dealt to the Chicago Cubs, where he did not fare any better.
Brown was not nearly as sickening, though his Nationals tenure came down to 40 at-bats and a combined .175/.250/.400 slash line to show for very short cups of coffee in three different seasons for Washington. Brown did hit 25 home runs in 2012 and 19 in 2013, though he always seemed to be hurt.
The return Washington got for Willingham is no longer with the organization, as the Nationals traded Brown to — you guessed it — the Athletics for cash considerations. This move comes on the heels of Brown being designated for assignment after the signing of Nate McLouth last week.
With this in mind compared to Willingham’s .241/.347/.464 slash line with 78 home runs and 256 RBIs for Oakland and the Minnesota Twins, can it be said that this was one of the worst trades since the team moved to D.C. in 2005?
Well, it depends on how the trade in interpreted. On one hand, Washington traded a relatively proven hitter for what we now know was a hard throwing reliever with no control whatsoever, and a player who was probably never given a legitimate shot at earning a spot on a major league roster. However, it’s pretty safe to say that Willingham was on his way to becoming a full-time designated hitter by the time he was 27.
Also, the salary and position that was cleared by Willingham being traded most likely went toward the Nationals signing Jayson Werth, a superior defender and a much more consistent hitter, as Willingham has a tendency to strike out a lot. Plus, it’s always good to get a return for a player preparing to hit free agency, which Willingham was at the time.
All in all, this was a deal that simultaneously helped and hurt the Nationals. It helped them clear some salary space and bring in a better all-around player in Werth. It also deepened their farm system, and allowed them absorb injuries. Of course, it hurt them because a team prepared to win should never have a player figure themselves out at the major league level a la Rodriguez, and Brown never really had a spot on the major league club.
It wasn’t a terrible deal, but I think Rizzo may want a do-over if he was given one.