Mailbag: What about Josh Willingham?

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

UYF1950 writes: About a week back you wrote a piece on Nick Swisher. I was wondering your thoughts about Josh Willingham as a possible replacement.  The Yankees could sign Swisher and then trade him. Willingham has played some right field, and his offensive numbers are not that much different than Swisher’s. He would probably cost a lot less both in 2012 and also if the Yankees signed him for two years.  Just wondering what you thought.

I think I’ve made it pretty clear how I feel about Nick Swisher, though the idea of potentially trading Swish for pitching and filling the void with pending free agent Josh Willingham isn’t necessarily the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.

Swisher and Willingham have a lot of similarities. Both have technically been in the Majors for eight seasons, although Willingham didn’t get a full-time shot until 2006, his Age 27 season, while Swisher broke into the bigs full-time by age 24. Swish has produced a .357 wOBA and 117 wRC+ over his career — although those numbers are significantly dragged down by his lost 2008 campaign, in which he posted a .321 wOBA and 91 wRC+ — while Willingham is a career .364 wOBA hitter with a 123 wRC+.

Both players have made their names as big-time OBP guys (Swish with a career .360 mark and Willingham at .361; though Swish has the patience edge, with a 13.5% career BB% to Willingham’s 11.3%) with power (Swish career SLG of .466; Willingham .477) — also known as the exact type of player that looks great in a Yankee uniform. Despite similar offensive profiles, Swish has been considerably more valuable by fWAR (22.2 to 14.9) over the course of their careers due to superior fielding numbers.

I’m a longtime Willingham fan, and though Josh had a bit of a down year (for him) with a .350 wOBA (123 wRC+), he really managed to turn his season around in the second half (.251/.352/.531). Still, his .332 OBP was his lowest since becoming a full-time player, and his 9.9% walk rate only the second time in his career he fell below 10% (although I suppose for all intents and purposes he was at 10% again). While I won’t go into an in-depth analysis here, it looks like at least part of his missing OBP was due to a significant spike in his K%, which rose to a career-worst 26.6% — quite a ways off from his 21% career mark, and among the top 10 highest K rates in the Majors. Still, Willingham’s shown a a quality-enough eye that I’m willing to chalk up the jump in K% to a blip and not necessarily an indication of a decline in skill. Although with Willingham entering his Age 33 season and coming off the worst full season of his career, that might be overly generous of me.

So in this hypothetical trade-Swish-for-pitching scenario, what would Willingham cost? Part of the point of this exercise is that Willingham would presumably be cheaper, although for my money Swish is still a steal at $10.25M. Tim Dierkes at MLBTR thinks Willingham could probably land something in the neighborhood of a two-year, $16 million deal, which seems about right to me. Fangraphs calculates Willingham’s 2011 value at $9.4 million, so he’ll almost certainly try to get at least $10 million/year from someone to start out, but given his defensive limitations and OBP decline — not to mention potential Type A status, if the A’s end up offering arbitration — that might be wishful thinking.

So would I pursue a move like this? Unless you were able to guarantee that Swish could net a bona fide #2-type starting pitcher, it’s a non-starter for me. And let’s face it, how many teams are going to trade a top-of-the-rotation type for a 31-year-old outfielder? The Yanks would likely have to sweeten the pot, and once we’re talking about moving multiple players, this idea becomes even less appealing to me.

Ultimately, Swish is the slightly superior player, and also three years younger, which makes this a highly unlikely scenario. Now, if the market for Willingham bottomed out to the point where he was unable to get a starting gig, I’d be happy for the Yankees to bring him in as a bench piece (though talk about an expensive reserve) and perhaps platoon with Brett Gardner in left when facing tough lefties, but the drop in defense from Gardner to Willingham could mitigate any perceived offensive improvement anyhow. I’d almost prefer the Yankees just re-up Andruw Jones as designated lefty-smasher, although as we’ve heard several times Jones himself may be in the market for a starting gig somewhere.

3 thoughts on “Mailbag: What about Josh Willingham?

  1. Willingham no, how about Cuddyer? He can play a decent RF as well as 3B and 1B. I haven’t compared his offensive numbers to Swish, but my guess is their pretty close.

    • Cuddyer’s name has been coming up fairly frequently, but I’m just not a fan. Cuddyer’s not a bad player, but Swisher is way better, and not by a small margin (Cuddyer career .345 wOBA, 111 wRC+).

    • What tells you Cuddyer can play a decent anything on defense? He is consistently a butcher in the OF by all metrics, and eyes. Plus I imagine he gets a multi year deal from somewhere (I think Boston goes heavy for him), and his post-season numbers (which everyone uses to bash Swish) are bad.