11/11/08 7:00 PM EST
Newest Nationals welcomed to team
Willingham, Olsen acquired by Washington in five-player deal
By Bill Ladson / MLB.com
The introduction came a few hours after Washington acquired the duo from Florida for second baseman Emilio Bonifacio, right-hander P.J. Dean and infielder Jake Smolinski. General manager Jim Bowden said the deal was agreed upon last Wednesday during the annual General Managers Meetings, which was held this year in Dana Point, Calif.
Both Olsen and Willingham are arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason.
"The Marlins are in a very unique situation -- in that they have a bevy of pitching coming," Bowden said. "Not only that, they have payroll restrictions in a stadium that they presently have. If they are going to make a deal, they are going to trade their arbitration players, not their non-arbitration guys."
It took almost a week to announce the trade, because all five players were getting physicals, and there were concerns about Smolinski's left knee and Willingham's lower back. Smolinski had reconstructive knee surgery recently, and he will not be ready for Spring Training. Willingham still has a herniated disc in his lower back. However, Dr. Wiemi Douoguih, the Nationals' medical director, said the right-handed-hitting Willingham should be ready for Spring Training.
"We are confident that he will be a contributor," Douoguih said. "Is there a risk? Sure there is a risk, and he might miss some time, but we have him on a strong core program, and he hasn't had any problems since the last episode last season."
Willingham, 29, appeared in 102 games this past season, and he hit .254 with 15 home runs and 51 RBIs. During his five years in the big leagues, he has done a lot of damage against the Nationals, hitting .328 with 13 home runs and 33 RBIs.
"I know the Nationals are one of the teams I have hit well against in my career," Willingham said. "Maybe it has something to do with coming to Washington, maybe not. Now that I'm over here, I will continue to play well and take it out on some other teams."
How Willingham fits in with the Nationals is not known. He is a corner outfielder, and Washington already has Austin Kearns, Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge playing those positions. Willingham can also play first base and behind the plate, but Bowden said that the team sees him as an outfielder. The GM didn't rule out trading one of the outfielders.
Olsen, 24, figures to be part of a Nationals rotation that finished with a 4.97 ERA this past season. The southpaw was 8-11 with a 4.20 ERA in 33 starts in 2008, throwing a career-high 201 2/3 innings. It was his best season since 2006, when he went 12-10 with a 4.04 ERA. It helped that he developed a changeup to go along with his fastball and slider.
"In 2005 and 2006, I had a fastball-slider, and it worked," Olsen said. "It worked for a year, and I never had enough confidence in my changeup until halfway into the 2007 season. Then in 2008, I started throwing it a lot and it worked well for me. I found a grip that I liked. The confidence got built up with that pitch. It really turned things around for me."
Olsen is so confident about his abilities that he said he wants to be the ace of the Nationals' rotation next season.
"You want to be the ace no matter where you are at," Olsen said. "I pride myself in the fact that I like to be out there every five days. I don't like missing starts. I'm sure I'm not the only one in the rotation who would like to be an ace. I expect an open competition. We'll see what happens in Spring Training. That's not my decision."
In 2006 and '07, Olsen had his share of controversies.
Asked what he did to stay out of trouble this past season, Olsen said, "I knew something had to change, so I started off slow and try to keep myself out of situations where there might be a problem. I think that is the biggest thing with all this maturing and everything that everybody claims that I've done. I think it comes down to one thing, and that is, don't be in situations where something might happen."
Of the three players Washington sent to Florida, Bonifacio is the biggest name. He was slated to be the Nationals' leadoff hitter and everyday second baseman, but Anderson Hernandez gave a better impression at the position during the final two months of the season, hitting .333 with 17 RBIs. Hernandez most likely will be the everyday second baseman next season.
The switch-hitting Bonifacio, who was acquired from the Diamondbacks last July for reliever Jon Rauch, hit .243 with 14 RBIs, and he struggled from the right side of the plate.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.