Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Two Outfield Trade Candidates: Josh Willingham

Yesterday I wrote about a good candidate to be traded this offseason in Cleveland Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. Today I am going to perform a similar analysis on another outfielder who could be traded, the Minnesota Twins' Josh Willingham. Willingham, or "The Hammer", is a 33 year old left fielder who signed a 3-year $21 million contract with the Twins last offseason. He has two years remaining on his current deal, which is set to pay him $7 million per season. Let's find out a little more about Josh.

Willingham began his career with the Florida Marlins, but in 2008 the Marlins traded him to the Washington Nationals. On average, since 2009, Willingham has proven to be a worth more than 2.5 fWAR.

 As you can see, while Willingham does not provide all-star caliber numbers every season, he is consistently solid. Other outfielders with similar fWAR numbers since 2009 include Andre Ethier, Cory Hart, and Adam Jones. The next logical question is, how does Willingham provide value? What would a team, willing to trade for him, be getting?

Josh Willingham has never, and will most likely never be a great defender. He isn't very fast, and won't steal many bases. Most of what he provides a team comes from his offensive abilities. Take a look at these numbers. 
Tav wOBA wRC+
2009 0.296 0.375 129
2010 0.299 0.375 132
2011 0.305 0.350 122
2012 0.312 0.380 143

Tav stands for true average, which is Baseball Prospectus' way of improving the statistic of batting average. It is scaled similarly, but incorporates other aspects like reaching base by error when calculating the average. It is a linearly weighted average, and adjustments are made in the calculation to factor for parks and league. Willingham has been consistently great at producing runs. He has high Tav, wOBA, and wRC+ showing a well-rounded approach at plate. As you can see below, Willingham produces both by getting on base as well as hitting for power. 


In the last 4 seasons Willingham ranks 12th amongst all outfielders in wOBA, a metric that does a great job portraying a players' overall offensive contribution. His 104 home runs since 2009 rank him 9th amongst all outfielders, just behind 2012 free agents Josh Hamilton (110) and Nick Swisher (105). In addition, he ranks 12th amongst outfielders in BB%, while striking out at about an average rate. From a hitting perspective, Willingham, despite his age, is a jewel. Due to his versatility to both get on base and hit for power, Willingham can bat in any spot in the order from 2nd all the way to 6th and be productive from each spot. 

Defensively, Willingham plays a low-key position. Amongst the three outfield positions, center field and right field are deemed as more defensively difficult positions to play. Players who are great defenders are put in center field, those with slightly less defensive ability but still good arms are put in right field, while outfielders who hit far better than they field usually end up in left field. That isn't to say that left field is similar to the designated hitter, but it isn't as important to be a superb defender when playing left field. Here are some of Willingham's defensive numbers since 2009.


 From a range perspective, Willingham fails due to his lack of speed. He can't cover nearly as much ground as better fast fielders so bloop hits fall in front of him, gappers get by him, and he isn't jumping over the wall to take away home runs. On the other hand, Willingham has a decent arm, and Baseball Prosepctus' defensive metric FRAA has twice in the last 4 seasons shown him to be above average at making the plays necessary to make in left field. In addition, it is important to note that in 2011 and 2012 Willingham played in big ballparks in Oakland and Minnesota, which can be tougher for outfielders who that slower. This may have contributed to his consistently negative UZR numbers. 

Since 2009 Willingham has earned just over $20 million dollars, but according to Fangraphs, he has been worth four times that amount. Outperforming one's contract by 4x is incredible, it shows that Willingham has continued to exceed expectations, a sign of a player who continues to work on his craft, a quality that cannot be underemphasized. If Willingham puts up between 4-6 fWAR over the next two seasons, he would be worth between $18-$27 million but, he is only set to be paid $14 million over the next two seasons combined. In addition, if Willingham's production drops, any team that trades for him will be rid of him by 2015, a reasonable bargain.  

So, now that we know what he brings to a team, and that he has been quite undervalued throughout his career, we have to ask ourselves one important question. Why would the Twins want to trade Josh Willingham? Well, the Twins haven't been a very good team the last two seasons, and they signed Willingham to a deal last winter partially hoping that if they continued to lose more than they won, he would be a perfect trade candidate. The Twins need to rebuild with young players, and they especially need pitching. So, any team willing to give up a B level pitching prospect or two could swipe Willingham and his affordable contract without an issue. 

Teams that should seriously consider trading for Willingham include the Phillies, Braves, Rays, Orioles, and Reds. 

As I articulated yesterday, the Phillies need outfield help, whether it be at a corner outfield spot or in center field. Domonic Brown will most likely play in one spot, but the other two are uncertain. Trading for Willingham would give the Phillies a power hitting right-handed bat that gets on base who can protect slugger Ryan Howard. In addition, he would break up the lefties in the middle of the Phillies order so if opposing teams bring in lefty specialists to get them, they would have to deal with Willingham and his .384 wOBA off of lefties last season. They don't have much in the farm system, but if Ruben Amaro wants to win next season, Willingham would be a great low cost, high reward player. He is a better version of Pat Burrell at a much lower cost.

Chipper Jones has retired. It opens up a hole at third base for the Atlanta Braves. If the Braves want to, they can fill this hole by moving 2012 left fielder Martin Prado to third base. He has played there before, and, especially in the current market, it is easier to find a replacement in the outfield than at third. The Braves, have three young pitchers that the Twins would want including Julio Tehran, Randall Delgado, and Mike Minor. My guess is that Minor is off limits, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Braves would be willing to part with Delgado or Tehran in order to claim Willingham. The Braves need to replace Jones' offensive production, especially given Brian McCann's recent offensive woes, and Willingham could do just that.

The Tampa Bay Rays are the perfect fit for Josh Willingham. The Rays have phenomenal pitching, and they have a bunch of it. The team recently brought back James Shields, and continues to produce great young pitchers like Alex Cobb and Matt Moore. Most importantly, the Rays need to upgrade their meek offense, but as usual, do so at a low cost. A trade that sent Rays righty Jeremy Hellickson to the Twins for Josh Willingham might be exactly what both teams need. Hellickson is a pitch-to-contact righty who is young, has MLB experience, and even won the AL rookie of the year award in 2011. He would be perfect pitching in Target Field, and the would immediately upgrade the Twins rotation at very little cost. The Rays have a need for Willingham and the necessary trade pieces to make this deal happen. Willingham's $7 million/season contract is a bit on the high side for a team like the Rays, but if they simultaneously dealt lefty David Price, it could lead to some serious payroll relief.

The argument for the Orioles is simple. The team needs better offensive production. They cannot count on Chris Davis to be as hot from the plate as he was towards the end of last season, and Willingham would provide a steady presence in their lineup. An outfield consisting of Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Josh Willingham would give the O's stability in the middle of their order, and another solid veteran presence on a young team. Willingham has played in the area before, and might like a change of scenery from cold Minnesota to warmer Baltimore. 

The Reds two best hitters are both lefties. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce provide a lot of umph in the middle of the Reds order, but if the Reds were to add Willingham to the bunch, it would allow Dusty Baker to split the two lefties up in the lineup. Ryan Ludwick was a revelation for the team last season, but he has been very up and down the last few seasons, and cannot be counted on to have a repeat performance. Home run friendly Great American Ballpark would be an upgrade for Willingham. He was able to 35 home runs in the much bigger Target Field, so his production should go up playing more in the warmer air and smaller confines of Great American Ballpark. The issue here is if the Reds have what it takes to land Willingham. They recently traded prospects to get Mat Latos, Jonathan Broxton, etc... so while Willingham makes sense in Cincinnati, I'm not sure they can pony up enough to acquire him.

In the end, I think Willingham ends up in Tampa Bay. The Rays almost make too much sense here. They need a low cost power bat, have exactly what the Twins are looking for in return, and due to cost concerns have little choice to upgrade vio free agency. This deal would make sense for both teams. The Rays have so much good young pitching, I can see three possible deals unfolding. 

Deal 1) Twins send Josh Willingham and $2 million to the Rays in exchange for RHP Jeremy Hellickson
Deal 2) Twins send Josh Willingham to the Rays in exchange for RHP Wade Davis
Deal 3) Twins send Josh Willingham to the Rays in exchange for RHP Chris Archer

If the Twins are serious about rebuilding, they need to trade players like Josh Willingham, and do so before he becomes less attractive. Teams like the Rays, Phillies, and Braves need someone like him, so watch out for an upcoming deal. Most importantly, remember that in this offseason where more than 100 free agents will sign new contracts, sometimes it's better to upgrade via trade. 

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