Josh Willingham: Proceed With Caution

The following is a guest post from Jeff Barnes. I consider him a must-follow on Twitter.

Ever since Jayson Werth took his talents to D.C., the Phillies have been rumored to be interested in a host of right-handed outfielders.   From offseason rumors of Michael Morse, Manny Ramirez, Magglio Ordonez and (my favorite) Jeff Francoeur, there was no shortage of possible fill-ins for the bearded one.  The Phillies ultimately decided those options were tempting enough, and decided to stay inhouse with Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown.

Now we are 66 games into the 2011 season, and the Phils rank 7th in the NL in runs scored.  Their outfield production looks like this:

Given this production (excluding Shane Victorino), it’s no surprise the Phillies are rumored to be back in the market for an outfielder.  According to this tweet from Buster Olney, the new target is Josh Willingham of the Oakland A’s.  Ruben Amaro should absolutely go get Willingham on one condition, Charlie Manuel passes a “how to use Willingham” test.

Its been mentioned in this blog as well as others, how much proper usage impacts a players value.  J.C. Romero has all the ability to be a perfectly fine LOOGY out of the Phillies pen, but by facing right-handed batters too often (45 RH Batters faced vs 27 LH), he has become the source of a ton of fan frustration.  The same risk applies with Willingham.

With Shane Victorino firmly entrenched in center, Raul and his 11.5 million dollar contract in left, the fear is Willingham’s at-bats will come at the expense of Domonic Brown.  This is concerning for a few reasons.  For starters, Dom’s development is possibly the Phillies best hope at improving their offense.  Allowing him to get 500 PAs this year, could turn the former #1 in all of baseball prospect into a huge weapon come October.

The second, and more urgent issue is outfield defense.   Willingham is undoubtedly a good hitter, as his career .833 OPS suggests.  He is unfortunately not quite as gifted with the glove.  There are varying opinion about advanced defensive stats, but whether you use them or prefer the ol’ eyeball test, there is little debate he’s a below average fielder.

Willingham’s UZR (theoretical runs above or below an average fielder) has been -5.7, -1.9, -4.0 the last three years.  The -4.0 this year is admittedly a small sample size, but its still not a great sign.  Even worse, this negative opinion on his defense has formed while Josh spent his whole career in left field.  One can only imagine the fielding would get worse moving to the more difficult right field.

To complicate the issue, the Phillies already employ one of the worst defensive left fielders in the league.  Running Willingham-Victorino-Ibanez out there may be enough for Roy Halladay to demand a trade back to Toronto.  This is simply not a sustainable defensive team, even with the Phab Four’s excellent ground ball rate.

Brought in as a platoon partner for Raul, and a power bat off the bench, Willingham could provide good value over the next 100 games and hopefully 3 playoff series.  Using him as the new RF at the expense of Domonic Brown’s development and our pitcher’s sanity, and Willingham is a stone better left unturned.  So go ahead Ruben, make the call, right after Charlie tells you what he’d do with him.