It’s been a foregone conclusion since about 2007 that Dayton Moore was going to court Jeff Francoeur to Kansas City. I think as Royals fans we’ve come to grips with this fact and are emotionally ready for the anguish. The Royals are currently in negotiations and fending off the Phillies and Rockies for the honor of watching him make an out 70% of the time he’s up.
Conveniently, there is. His name is Josh Willingham, and he’s not just an alternative to Francoeur, he’s an upgrade.
First off, last night, I passed on a tweet from Rany Jazayerli who also had Willingham in mind. Before Rany mentioned him, I’d called him the anti-Francoeur based on his career walkrate of 11.6%. In case you’re wondering that’s 3% greater than league average. It’s also something the Royals could definitely use with Yuniesky Betancourt and Mike Aviles in the lineup and being less than patient, to put it politely. (Side note: Last night I erroneously called Willingham an All-Star in 2010, but he was merely in the fan vote balloting for it despite an OPS over .900 at the time. He was ninth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2006, though.)
While Francoeur hit 29 homers in 2006, he’s only surpassed 20 homers that single time. Willingham’s done it three times and in about 500 fewer plate appearances. He certainly would have hit 20 last season too but an August knee injury derailed his season.
Willingham is older, as he’ll be 31 on Opening Day, but he’s also coming off five consecutive seasons with an OPS of 110 or greater. He’s one of the best outfielders you never hear about and while his batting average and power numbers haven’t been spectacular, they’ve been consistent. He’s never hit lower than .254, never had an on base percentage lower than .356, and has kept his slugging percentage north of .450 every year since becoming a regular. His age and track record give him a lower upside than Francoeur, who at 27 could still recapture that 2006 magic, but there are other factors to consider. Willingham made $4.1 million in 2010. Francoeur made $5 million, so you probably pay about the same in 2011 for either player.
This may be the last season for a while that the Royals are going after stopgap options on the roster. Willingham doesn’t have much long-term potential. His skills will start to decline and while he’s under contract for another year, he’s not likely to sign an extension if the Royals did get him. Francoeur would probably sign for a three year contract, which could be good if he does regain the form that made him the “natural” ballplayer. But if he doesn’t – if he keeps making outs and showing limited power – the Royals will be stuck with him.
Also, given that Willingham has been above average for a long time, when he becomes a free agent at the end of 2011, he’s almost assured of being a Type B Free Agent. I can’t imagine the Royals would retain him so he’d net Kansas City a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds. That’s a pretty solid return on a one year rental. Or maybe Willingham hits 20 homers by July and the Royals trade him for more young talent.
Now it’s just a matter of getting him. The Nationals are reported to have an “absurd” price tag on Willingham according to Ken Rosenthal. Rany floated the idea of a Robinson Tejeda for Willingham swap, which makes decent sense to me. Maybe they’d want someone like Clint Robinson, who’s staring up at Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Kila Ka’aihue on the organizational depth chart at first base. The Nationals have been rumored to be prepared to make a huge offer to Cliff Lee after overpaying for Jayson Werth. The sense is that they want to win. Tejeda could be a nice option in a bullpen that already has Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.
Why they have Willingham available, I don’t know, as he’d be a perfect back of the lineup power option. He hits for power, walks, and heck, in seven seasons, he’s only grounded into 52 double plays. He’s not going to wow anybody on defense, but he’s not going to be a liability out there either.
I see no reason why the Royals shouldn’t be talking with the Nationals about Willingham.