Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sizing up the Nationals -- Marlins Trade

Yesterday’s Nationals – Marlins trade should have taken no one by surprise. From the Nationals’ perspective, this deal was significant because the club acquired two players, left fielder Josh Willingham and starter Scott Olsen, who will represent significant upgrades at their respective positions. For the Marlins, this was nothing more than a good, old-fashioned salary dump. Bidding adieu to Willingham and Olsen, both of whom are arbitration-eligible for the first time, will cut between $4 and $5 million from the Marlins’ 2009 payroll, while only one of the three prospects Florida received, second baseman Emilio Bonifacio, is ready to contribute at the major league level. The other two youngsters, pitcher P.J. Dean and infielder Jake Smolinski, are each at least three years away. All three are considered mid-level prospects, although the 23-year-old Bonifacio has improved his plate discipline and has the speed to steal 50 bases a season.

It will be interesting to see just how much of an impact this deal has for Washington. Willingham’s .833 OPS in 2008 suggests that he’s a considerable upgrade over the Willie Harris/Willie Mo Pena left field platoon, which produced a .707 OPS. However, Willingham’s shoddy defense could force a move to first base. If that’s the case, some of Washington’s initial advantage would be negated because Willingham’s bat wouldn’t play quite as well at first base as it does in the outfield. Still, it would enable Nats’ GM Jim Bowden to dangle incumbent Nick Johnson as trade bait in an effort to enhance the team’s pitching depth. Speaking of pitching, Olsen is the real wild card in the deal. After an excellent 2006 rookie campaign in which he went 12-10 with a 4.04 ERA and WHIP of 1.30, personal problems and the loss of at least 5 MPH from his fastball caused his ERA to balloon to 5.81 and his WHIP to swell to 1.76 in 2007. Though 2008 saw Olsen’s ERA and WHIP improve to 4.20 and 1.31, respectively, his K/9 ratio fell to 5.04 (it was 8.27 in 2006) as he didn’t regain the velocity on his fastball and bite on his slider until September. If Olsen is able to stay out of trouble and maintain his stuff, this trade could end up being one of the most one-sided deals of the entire offseason. If not, it should still wind up in Washington’s favor.

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