Willingham Back On the Trading Block, Nats Interested In Mike Jacobs

Farid RushdiAnalyst IJanuary 23, 2010

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 21:  Mike Jacobs #17 of the Kansas City Royals walks back to the dugout during the game against Boston Red Sox on September 21, 2009 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Sometimes, baseball inside the Beltway makes about as much sense as its politics.

Follow this if you can.

When last season began, Josh Willingham was an afterthought, even though he’d averaged 26 home runs per season over his career. Then, suddenly, the Nationals decided he was an integral part of the offense, moved left fielder Adam Dunn to first and made Willingham a permanent fixture in the outfield.

In just 427 at-bats, Willingham batted .260-24-61 with a fine .367 on-base percentage.

Team president Stan Kasten was so enthralled with Willingham in left that he said on a local radio program last month that he wanted to extend Dunn’s contract, but wanted to see if he could improve his defense because, “Adam’s future in the National League is at first base, not left field. I told him I didn’t want him to end up becoming a designated hitter in the American League.”

So there was no question. Dunn is the team’s first baseman of the future, and Willingham—due in part to his bat but also because of his outstanding clubhouse demeanor—would be a fixture in left. Just a few days ago, both sides avoided arbitration and settled on a one-year, $4.6 million deal.

Things seemed to settle down. For about a week.

Several sources (including the Nationals) reported on Friday that the team was interested in first baseman Mike Jacobs, formerly of the Kansas City Royals.

Why would the Nationals consider Jacobs? Dunn is a fixture at first and Mike Morse has shown he is a very solid backup, capable of playing both corner infield and outfield positions.

Nah. Just a rumor.

But Friday brought a second rumor. Buster Olney of ESPN.com reported that he is hearing that Willingham is back on the market, and that Dunn will return back to left field if a trade is finalized.

Hmm. If Dunn returns to the outfield, who would possibly play first base?

Why, Mike Jacobs!

Does any of this make sense?

Well, maybe, I guess.

The Nationals have made it clear that they want to find one more established pitcher or another “can’t miss” youngster. They had a deal finalized last month that would have sent Willingham and another player to a club for a “Jordan Zimmermann clone,” but the other team backed out at the last minute.

Adding a fourth starter would leave one spot available in the rotation for the winner of the Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin and Ross Detwiler spring training battle.

And that makes sense.

And moving Adam Dunn back to left field to replace Willingham makes sense to an extent. Though I would prefer to give Justin Maxwell an opportunity to succeed, the team is working hard to make 2010 a success and they might not want to have a hole in the outfield if Maxwell fails.

But Mike Jacobs at first?

Jacobs was considered a real prospect when he worked his way through the Mets farm system. He hit .329-17-81 in 2003 for Class-AA Binghamton and .321-25-93 the following year.

He was the centerpiece of the prospect package that was traded to the Florida Marlins for Carlos Delgado prior to the 2006 season. In his three years in Florida, Jacobs averaged .258-25-77 with a not-so-good .319 on-base percentage. He struck out 108 times while walking just 37.

Last season with the Royals was his worst season as a major leaguer, batting just .228-19-61 with a .298 on-base percentage.

And defensively, he’s even worse than Dunn.

If the Nationals are able to get a quality pitcher for Willingham and another player—a second John Lannan or Jason Marquis—they will have a solid rotation, especially if whoever fills the fifth spot—Detwiler, Stammen or Martin—continues to pitch well and improve.

But replacing Willingham with Jacobs will leave the offense with as many holes as Rick Ankiel’s swing. 

Assuming that the Nationals sign Orlando Hudson, the first four spots in the lineup will be solid. Nyjer Morgan, Hudson, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn are as good as most any team in the National League. But without Willingham, Adam Dunn won’t be protected.

Jacobs just isn’t good enough to bat fifth.

The key in this scenario is Elijah Dukes. He is probably the most talented athlete on the team and has the ability to easily hit .290-25-90 this season and become a quality bat in the fifth hole. If he succeeds then the Nationals could live with a home run-or-nothing bat lower in the order.

But if he doesn’t, things could be grim for the Nationals. Without a third power bat, opposing pitchers could easily pitch around the RBI guys and they would likely lose a great many 2-1 or 3-2 games.

Good pitching still loses when it doesn’t get any support.

It’s all good if the Nationals decide to trade Willingham. But acquiring Jacobs wouldn’t be the required “yang” to the “ying” of losing him.

Perhaps Jacobs will be simply one of several options the Nationals might try at first. Mike Morse has a career .293 batting average and certainly showed some power in his short stint with the team last year. And I now understand why the Nationals reacquired first baseman Josh Whitesell after his release by the Diamondbacks.

Perhaps the Nationals are considering a platoon of Morse (.324 vs. lefties) and Jacobs (.273 against righties).

Team General Manager has earned my trust and I’m not going to question one of his moves until he fails, something that has yet to happen. But heading into the 2010 season without an established first baseman seems like a bad move, especially since heir apparent Chris Marrero won’t be ready until 2011 at the earliest.

Unless, of course, Rizzo has something else up his sleeve.


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