Thursday, November 03, 2005

Spoonful of Sugar for Brad Wilkerson

So long, Brad Wilkerson. We hardly knew ye.

Or so that's the conclusion one could draw after reading Bill Ladson's mailbag. I've never been Ladson's biggest fan, but he's useful for parroting back the party line. If you want to know what the front office's spin is, read Ladson. That's fine, but you need to have your polarized lenses in when reading his copy.

Here's the question and answer that start the intrigue:

Do you believe that if Brad Wilkerson played only one position, his concentration and hitting would improve? -- David E., Owensboro, Ky.

I don't buy that theory. The only way Wilkerson becomes a better hitter is by learning the strike zone and cutting down on the strikeouts, which killed many rallies for the Nationals this past season.

In terms of his defense, some in the organization felt that Wilkerson made a lot of fundamental mistakes. I don't think that had anything to do with Wilkerson playing more than one position.

I won't take him to task for the misguided strikeout thing. As I and others have argued before, strikeouts are just another out. Yes, they're frustrating to watch, and yes, there are times where cutting back on the swing is essential (something I think Brad didn't necessarily do this year), but to contend that he killed rallies because of them is silly. Brad was one of the few Nationals who worked deep into counts. If you're going to blame him for killing rallies with strikeouts, you need to credit him for his walks (84), which did a lot to extend rallies -- which Jose Guillen or Preston Wilson would eventually kill (with a popup or strikeout respectively). OK, so I guess I did take him to task for the strikeout thing. Sue me, Bill!

Brad Wilkerson had a down last year. That's clear. He suffered through a forearm injury which sapped much of his power, and reduced his already sketchy ability to make contact. He clearly was suffering mid-season. But this is a guy who slugged 32 homers the year before. And even in the worst of his career, he still managed a .350 on-base percentage, and was still above league average offensively (105 OPS+).

In an interview mid-season, Brad said that he was harmed by playing center. Before last season, he was assured that he'd be playing left field, a much less demanding position. As a result, he bulked up slightly, in an attempt to build power. When the team whacked Endy Chavez, it forced Brad into a position he wasn't physically ready for, putting extra strain on his body.

As far as his defense, his front office critics have to be crazy. Wilkerson isn't going to win any Gold Gloves, but he is NOT a defensive liability in the outfield. I was surprised by his range in center. He doesn't really look pretty out there, but he got to balls in the gaps fairly frequently. Occasionally a ball would drop in front of him that I thought he should get to, but much of that, I suspect, is an illusion of the park. With an outfield fence so deep, he had a lot more ground to cover than an average centerfielder. He couldn't be everywhere at once. And most people would prefer a popfly texas leaguer to drop in, than a double off the wall.

Where was he fundamentally wrong on defense? He has a surprisingly strong arm that's much more accurate than Jose Guillen's, even if it's not as cannon-like. Opening Day he made a throw to a wrong base that cost the team a run, but that was the first time he had played the position all year -- not even in spring training. I didn't see him making those errors after. Think about how many throws that Guillen airmailed, for example. Yet you don't hear the criticism of him. (Probably because the front office values their life! :P )

This isn't the first time that Wilkerson's been attacked anonymously. Yes, his season was disappointing. But throw him in the same bucket with Livan, Guzman, Vidro, Castilla, Wilson, and several others.

So why single him out?

To ship him out of town.

Wilkerson is arbitration-eligible. He made $3MM this year, and will probably be closer to $6 million next season, despite the disappointing numbers. Wilkerson will be a free agent in two years, and his agent, Scott Boras, doesn't understand the meaning of 'hometown' discount.

Plus, I'm not sure that Wilkerson is worth a long-term contract. I've written about this before, but Wilkerson has what's been called "old player's skills." He hits for a relatively low average, has decent power, and strikes out quite a bit. These types of players typically don't age well. And if you look at his list of comparable players, most of them ( Calderon, Jones, Henderson, etc.) didn't last much beyond 30.

He'll give you production in the short-term, but no guarantees long-term.

Wilkerson isn't the toolsy, speedy kind of outfielder that Bowden lusts for. And given his down year and the potential cost next year, the tea leaves (or animal bones, if you prefer) are lining up.

For better or worse, Brad Wilkerson is the most recognizable star on the team, thanks to those Godawful bank commercials. He was central to some of the more memorable events of the season -- first hit, the cycle, the grand slam, etc.

So they're adhering to Mary Poppins' advice, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." Only here, "medicine" refers to trading a popular player and "spoon full of sugar" means anonymously bitching and ripping the player in the press. Same difference and all.

Wilkerson's getting his medicine now. Sometimes it's a bitter pill to swallow.

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