For Royals, trade for Josh Willingham low-risk, worthwhile gamble
With a postseason berth in reach, Royals general manager Dayton Moore is making a move to bolster his offense. On Monday, the team announced it had acquired outfielder Josh Willingham from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for minor league pitcher Jason Adam.
In picking up Willingham, Kansas City brings in a veteran bat to help supplement its offense in the wake of losing Eric Hosmer on July 31 to a broken hand. Hosmer, who is expected to miss anywhere from another week to the rest of the month, has been out of the lineup since the beginning of August. That's forced the Royals to move Billy Butler from designated hitter to first base, where he's performed admirably (.382/.400/.706 in 35 plate appearances since the start of the month) but left a giant hole at the DH spot. Raul Ibanez, 42, late of the Angels, stood to see the most time in Butler's place at DH, but his putrid .166/.252/.296 line has made him all but unplayable. For a team with designs on the playoffs and currently within a half-game of Detroit in the AL Central, Kansas City can't afford to be running out the likes of Ibanez in its lineup regularly.
As bad as Ibanez has been, however, Willingham hasn't done much better recently. The 35-year-old opened the season as Minnesota's primary left fielder, only to suffer a hairline fracture in his left wrist that sidelined him for the majority of April and May. Willingham returned to the Twins' lineup on May 26 and re-established himself in the middle of the lineup, swatting seven homers in 31 games between May and June. Since the beginning of July, however, Willingham's bat has gone ice-cold; the veteran has posted a mere .170/.286/.321 line in his last 126 PA, including 41 strikeouts. That killed whatever value he had ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
What's worrisome about Willingham's extended slump is that it comes on the heels of a miserable 2013 in which he posted a career-worst .709 OPS and 97 OPS+ to go along with only 14 homers. Willingham has never been a particularly durable player — his career high for games played in a season is 145, set in 2012 — and he has been beset by a litany of maladies in the last few years, including the wrist injury this season, a left knee injury that required surgery last year and various other wrist and shoulder issues. The right-handed Willingham has also been eaten alive by same-side pitching this season, hitting .195 against righties.
Nonetheless, Willingham is only two seasons removed from a 35-homer campaign and cost the Royals little. Adam is a 23-year-old right-hander picked in the fifth round in 2010 who boasts a big fastball and was named Kansas City's ninth-best prospect by Baseball America before the season. But he hasn't shown much to get excited about in 2014, getting battered as a starter in his second turn in Double-A before being bumped up to Triple-A and turned into a reliever. What's more, Willingham is a short-term commitment, as he'll be a free agent at season's end. He also comes to Kansas City on a relatively modest salary of $7 million; he's owed just under $2 million for what's left of the season.
Additionally, the Royals will be able to plug Willingham in at DH and thus not have to expose him to the outfield, where he's posted dreadful defensive numbers in his career. Willingham pulled down a -8 Defensive Runs Saved figure in left field for the Twins last year across 607 2/3 innings after charting a -13 in 2012. He had rebounded somewhat to a -1 this year in limited time, but it's safe to say Willingham is no threat to win a Gold Glove any time soon, and that he's best suited for a DH role going forward. Interestingly, Willingham has played just three games in his career at first base, meaning he's likely not an option to spend any time there with Hosmer sidelined.
All told, Willingham is a worthwhile gamble for the Royals as they try to fight their way past the Tigers in the division and hold off a trio of teams in the wild-card race. If he can shake off his summer slump, he could give Kansas City the kind of power threat it hasn't had in the recent past. What's more, Willingham's addition makes for a good gesture on the part of Moore, who was roundly criticized for sitting on his hands at the trade deadline and likely would've received just as much flak had he not moved to help his team during its hot streak.
As for Minnesota, Adam is a decent pick-up for a free-agent-to-be on a non-contending team, as well as opening up consistent playing time for prospect Kennys Vargas. There was talk before the season that Willingham would return to Minnesota, but given his declining performance, the Twins would be better off giving his playing time to younger players.