When the Oakland A's announced the signing of veteran slugger Hideki Matsui on Tuesday, there was a feeling around baseball that the team was still at least one bat away from being considered a serious contender in 2011. The A's made a move on Thursday for that additional bat, acquiring outfielder Josh Willingham for prospect Corey Brown and reliever Henry Rodriguez.
In Willingham, the A's are netting what they hope is the right-handed compliment to Matsui in the middle of their line-up. The 31-year-old is a career .265 hitter with 103 homers and an 842 OPS in 663 games spread over seven seasons. He began his career with the Florida Marlins, but had spent the past two seasons as a member of the Washington Nationals. He hit .268 with 16 homers and an 848 OPS in 114 games for the Nationals in 2010. Willingham missed the final six weeks of the season with a knee injury.
Throughout his career, Willingham has been a steady performer at the plate. He has never posted an OPS lower than 827 in any of his five full seasons. His career OBP is .367 and he established a career-best in that category in 2010 with a .389 mark. Willingham is considered an average defensive outfielder and is limited to the corners. He will play left-field in Oakland.
The veteran right-handed hitter is in his final season of arbitration-eligibility, so the A's are only guaranteed one year of his services. He is the second outfielder the A's have acquired this off-season who is a year away from free agency; the other being David DeJesus, who is slated to play right-field this season. In both trades, the A's gave up one player with a little major league experience and another prospect who has yet to make his big league debut.
In the DeJesus deal, the players traded were Vince Mazzaro and Justin Marks. This time, the A's have given up Rodriguez and Brown, both of whom have held prominent positions on the A's top-prospect lists over the past several years.
Rodriguez made his major league debut at the end of the 2009 season, but he really got his feet wet in the big leagues in 2010 when he appeared in 29 games for the A's. He had a 4.55 ERA and 33 strike-outs against 13 walks in 27.2 innings for Oakland. Rodriguez also spent time with Triple-A Sacramento, where he had a 1.69 ERA with 31 strike-outs and nine walks in 21.1 innings.
Signed by the A's as a non-drafted free agent in 2003 out of Santa Barbara, Venezuela, Rodriguez held the distinction of having the most arm strength of any pitcher in the A's system. His fastball regularly hit triple-digits and he was able to team that velocity with a sharp-breaking, although inconsistent, slider. A starter until midway through the 2008 season, Rodriguez was moved to the bullpen so he could focus more on throwing strikes and less on developing an effective third or fourth offering.
Rodriguez has always been an incredibly difficult pitcher to make contact against. In 329 minor league innings, Rodriguez has struck-out 425 batters. Unfortunately, he has also walked 240 batters. It is his wildness that has prevented him from becoming an elite reliever up to this point. Although he is only 24, Rodriguez is already out-of-options, so he will need to remain on the 25-man roster all season or risk being exposed to waivers.
For the A's, the lack of options may have been an issue. If the team is trying to win this season, they may have felt they couldn't hide Rodriguez in the bullpen if he began to struggle with his command again. He walked 13 and threw seven wild pitches last season with Oakland and he had trouble controlling the running game, allowing eight batters to steal successfully. The A's have historically emphasized having strike-throwers more than hard-throwers in their bullpens, a philosophy that has worked well for Oakland over the years.
The other player in the deal is outfielder Corey Brown, who we ranked as the A's fifth-best prospect for 2011. The team's supplemental first-round pick in 2007, Brown has been arguably the organization's best speed-power combo player since he was selected. In three-and-a-half minor league seasons, Brown has a career .272/.359/.497 line in 390 games. He has also stolen 48 bases and has been caught only eight times.
In 2010, Brown was invited to big league camp for the first time and began the season with Triple-A Sacramento. He struggled badly in his first stint with the River Cats, batting .156 with a 482 OPS in 34 games. Sent back to Double-A Midland in late May, Brown turned around his season, posting a .320/.415/.502 line in 90 games with the Rockhounds before returning to Sacramento and hitting .318 with two homers and four walks in six games at the end of the season. Brown was named to the Topps Double-A All-Star team and the Texas League's Post-Season All-Star squad. He was placed on the A's 40-man roster before this year's Rule 5 draft.
At the time of the 2007 draft, Brown was advertised as a Mike Cameron-type player, a centerfielder with good power and a good eye, but a penchant for piling up the strike-outs. Brown has stayed true to that scouting report since that time. He has struck-out 443 times in 390 games, but has 185 walks. Brown is also a solid defensive centerfielder and he has a good enough arm to handle right-field should he need to move to a corner spot.
Injuries have been an issue for Brown throughout his minor league career. He has missed time during his career with knee, hand and shoulder injuries and had minor off-season knee surgery in October. He turned 25 in November.
For the 2011 season, this trade is a no-brainer for the A's, who began the off-season needing at least two and maybe three bats to get their moribund offense to a playoff-caliber level. Brown was a couple of layers back on the A's outfield depth chart for 2011 behind Coco Crisp, Conor Jackson, Ryan Sweeney, Chris Carter, Michael Taylor and arguably Matt Carson, who has spent a decent amount of time on the A's roster the past two seasons. Rodriguez's role in the A's bullpen would have been middle relief, a role can be filled by any number of pitchers, including Rich Harden, who has reportedly agreed to terms with the A's on a one-year deal, pending a physical. For 2012 and 2013, however, the A's are taking a little more of a risk with this deal.
Rodriguez, as elite an arm as he is, isn't too likely to be missed long-term in an A's organization that constantly churns out good right-handed relievers. Fautino De Los Santos, a hard-throwing right-hander who was acquired by the A's in the Nick Swisher trade three years ago, is recovered from Tommy John surgery and could assume Rodriguez's role as the flame-thrower in the A's bullpen as soon as mid-season. Another hard-throwing relief prospect, Andrew Carignan, is also healthy again and could challenge for a bullpen spot soon.
Brown, however, may be harder to replace in the near-term. Going into 2011, all of the outfielders expected to be on the A's Opening Day roster will be free agents at the end of the year, with the exception of Ryan Sweeney, who is coming off of two years plagued by knee injuries. If the A's don't re-sign Matsui, Crisp, DeJesus and/or Jackson, they will have a lot of holes to fill for 2012.
Top prospects Chris Carter and Michael Taylor could fill some of those holes, but the A's don't have a lot of additional major-league ready outfield talent at the Triple-A level with Brown gone. And although Taylor has some experience in centerfield, Brown was the A's only true centerfield prospect in the Double-A and Triple-A levels. The A's top pick in 2010, Michael Choice, is a possibility for centerfield, but he is at least two years away. The A's could move 2008 top pick Jemile Weeks from second base to centerfield, but given Weeks' history of leg injuries and his improvements defensively at second base, that doesn't seem likely. The A's could also try 2009 top pick Grant Green in center, although he has been a middle infielder throughout his career and may not have the footspeed for center.
Sean Doolittle, though not a centerfielder, is also a wild card in the A's outfield picture. He was on the verge of the major leagues in April 2009, but has had major knee problems derail him since that time. It is not known presently whether he will be able to play the outfield or if he will be limited by his knees to first base. The same can be said for Sweeney, whose knees could limit him to the corner outfield spots, taking him out of the centerfield picture entirely.
That all being said, the trade is a good risk to take for Oakland. With their current pitching staff, the A's have a window of opportunity to compete for the playoffs and it would be a shame to have another season of outstanding pitching wasted because of a lack of offense like it was in 2010 (and 2009, for that matter). Willingham, as a patient hitter with power, is the kind of player who the A's featured prominently in their line-ups in the early 2000s. He will have to make the jump from the National League to the American League and adjust to the Oakland Coliseum, but he has played in pitcher-friendly stadiums before (especially with Florida) and handled them just fine.
Although the defending AL Champions are in the A's division, the AL West is winnable for Oakland if they can piece together a decent offense. The A's need only to look across the Bay to see how far an even minimally effective offense can take a team with an outstanding pitching staff.