Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Josh Willingham is eligible to become a free agent after next season.
In actuality, "The Willingham Conundrum" is the dilemma facing the Nationals over the next 12 months with regards to their veteran left fielder. If Adam Dunn's future was the biggest question mark looming over 2010, Josh Willingham's future might well become a comparable storyline in 2011.
The dilemma: Willingham is entering his final season of arbitration. He stands to make about $6 million next year through that process. He's then eligible to become a free agent next fall. Thus, the Nationals would appear to have three options with The Hammer moving forward...
1. Sign him to a contract extension.
2. Let him walk as a free agent and receive draft-pick compensation.
3. Trade him, either this winter or next summer, to perhaps get more in return.
Which option makes the most sense for the Nats? I'm not sure anyone really knows at this point. I do know there's no chance of a long-term extension this winter. It just wouldn't behoove the Nationals to make that move right now with Willingham recovering from knee surgery. And, truth be told, it probably wouldn't behoove Willingham to sign now, not with his value somewhat diminished because of the injury. Might as well attempt to put up big numbers in 2011 and raise his stock.
Here's the question, though: How confident are you that Willingham will put up big numbers next season, and that he'll sustain that level of production over the next two, three, four seasons? The evidence doesn't suggest that's likely.
As much as we talk about Dunn's remarkable consistency over the years, Willingham is pretty much right there alongside the big guy. He's played five full seasons in the majors. During that time, his batting average has always fallen between .254 and .277. His on-base percentage has always fallen between .356 and .389. His slugging percentage has always fallen between .459 and .496.
And check this out. Willingham's year-by-year OPS since 2006: .852, .827, .834, .863, .848.
That, my friends, is called consistency.
Now, this can be looked at in two ways. On the one hand, there's nothing more valuable in baseball that a guy who you can count on to consistently put up the same numbers every year. That's the best argument for anyone who wants to sign Dunn. On the other hand, after five seasons of near-identical production, it seems pretty safe to say Willingham isn't about to make a giant leap forward and take his game to another level.
There was actually a point last season when it appeared Willingham might be making that leap. In late May, he was on pace to hit 34 homers with 113 RBI, a .286 average, a .437 on-base percentage and a .988 OPS that would have ranked third in the National League behind Joey Votto and Albert Pujols.
But as has often been the case in his career, Willingham's production tailed off considerably as the season progressed. He hit just .234 with one homer and a .652 OPS over his final 32 games. Obviously, the torn meniscus in his left knee played a role and ultimately required season-ending surgery. But the knee wasn't a factor in 2009 when Willingham went through a similar late-season slump.
In fact, this has been going on throughout his career when you compare his first-half stats to his second-half stats. His batting average drops 22 points after the All-Star break. His on-base percentage drops 38 points. His slugging percentage drops 41 points. And his OPS drops 78 points. Yet another example of his consistency.
None of this is to suggest Willingham is not a good and valuable ballplayer. He is. You can pretty much pencil him in every season for a .260 average, 20 homers, a .365 on-base percentage and an .850 OPS. Solid numbers all around.
But you can also pretty much pencil him in to miss some amount of time due to injuries, and you can also pencil him in to fade over the course of the season.
So if you're the Nationals, what do you do? Do you sign Willingham (who will be 32 by the time spring training gets going, by the way) to a three-year extension, with his salary probably pushing up toward the $10 million range? Do you let him walk at the end of next season and accept some amount of draft-pick compensation depending on whether he's a Type A or Type B free agent? Or do you listen to trade offers for him this winter and/or next summer?
It would be hard to fault Mike Rizzo for at least entertaining trade offers and seeing what kind of return he might be able to get, especially this winter while other teams could still get a full season of Willingham instead of only a two- or three-month rental.
Now, if there aren't any reasonable trade proposals, Rizzo certainly isn't obligated to deal Willingham. And if he does, he absolutely needs to go and find a suitable replacement both in left field and in a Nationals lineup that already could be losing Dunn.
Or Rizzo could commit to The Hammer for another three years, hoping that consistent level of production continues through age 35 and is worth $10 million per year.
Such is The Willingham Conundrum, a puzzle with no clear answer that still must be solved in the near future.