If Nats Trade Willingham for Pitching, Will Justin Maxwell Be Ready?

Farid RushdiAnalyst IDecember 7, 2009

ATLANTA - AUGUST 01:  Starting pitcher Derek Lowe #32 of the Atlanta Braves against the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 1, 2009 at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves are making it clear that they are looking to add a bat this offseason and will be willing to trade a starting pitcher—probably Javier Vasquez or Derek Lowe—to get one.


Several hard-hitting outfielders have been mentioned, but it is common knowledge that the Braves have been interested in the Nationals’ Josh Willingham since last year.


Would it make sense for the Nationals to consider a bat-for-arm type of trade?


Willingham, 30, batted .260-24-61 for Washington in 2009. However, he didn’t begin to play regularly until mid-May. Had he played the full season, his numbers would have been more impressive, somewhere around .260-31-88 with a .367 on-base percentage and a .496 slugging percent. For his career, Willingham has averaged .264-26-83 over a full season.


Willingham gives the Nationals three real sluggers in their lineup, something they have never had since moving to Washington. They could not afford to trade him without finding a similar bat in the lineup to take his place.


Justin Maxwell is probably the only player currently in the system that might be ready to become an everyday player. Maxwell, 25, is a graduate of the University of Maryland and has had two cups-of-coffee with the Nationals. Take a look at his 115 major league at-bats when they are expanded out to a 550 at-bat season:


Ave: .252

Hits: 145

2B: 20

3B: 5

HR: 30

RBI: 75

SB: 30

OBP: .333

SLG: .449


Many scouts believe that Maxwell will become a low average-high power hitter with a lot of stolen bases and stellar defense.


The name of Mike Cameron comes to mind. Cameron’s 14-year career average is very similar to Maxwell’s numbers: .250-23-82, 26 stolen bases, .340 on-base percentage and .448 slugging percentage.


At 25, Maxwell’s window as a real prospect has come to an end. He either needs to be in the starting lineup in 2010 or find a new home. It won’t serve him or the Nationals to have Maxwell return to the minors for another season.


I think Maxwell’s offense will be as good as Willingham’s, perhaps a bit better. Defensively, he would be the best defensive outfielder the Nationals could play. The problem is that the team is too thin to trade Willingham and have Maxwell fail.


However, if he makes it, the additional starting pitcher could get the Nationals to 75 or so wins in 2010.


As mentioned, Derek Lowe or Javier Vasquez would be the most likely pitchers offered by Atlanta.


Lowe is now 36, so the Nationals would have to believe that they would be close to contention to make a deal for him. Over his 13-year career, Lowe has averaged 11-9, 3.84, allowing 9.1 hits and 2.9 walks per nine innings while striking out 5.8.


From 2002 through 2008, Lowe was at his best, going 15-10, 3.79 in 211 innings. He gave up 8.9 hits per nine innings and just 2.5 walks.


However, things weren’t quite as rosy with the Braves last year. Though he went 15-10, his ERA jumped almost a run per game to 4.67. His hits per nine innings were up to 10.7 and his walks were almost 3.0 per nine innings. His strikeout rate of 5.1 per nine innings was his lowest in seven years.


Lowe has three years remaining on his contract at $15 million per year.


Josh Willingham for Derek Lowe? I think he’s too expensive and may be beginning his slow decline into retirement.


Javier Vasquez might make more sense for Washington. At 32, he is four years younger than Lowe, and had a much better season. Though Vasquez’s record of 15-10 was identical to that of Derek Lowe, his internal numbers were far superior. In 219 innings, he had a superb 2.87 ERA and allowed 7.4 hits per nine innings, just 1.8 walks and struck out almost 10 per game.


He still makes almost $12 million per year, but that is a substantial savings over Derek Lowe’s contract.


At first blush, I didn’t think that a Willingham-for-pitching trade made a great deal of sense. However, now that Maxwell has a larger major league sampling, I think we can make the assumption that he’s going to be a good-but-not-great player, the kind of guy who strikes out too much but also someone who can win a game with a single swing of his bat or one circus catch in the outfield.


True, the Nationals would be taking a big chance by trading Willingham. After Maxwell, there is no one on the team who has shown the ability to be an everyday player. But this could be one of those trades that could make the Nationals significantly better quickly.


Let’s see if the Lerner family is willing to take on those kinds of contracts.



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