First things first, Willingham’s not playing there

Yes, Josh Willingham can play first base. No, the Nationals don’t consider him a viable option to man the position in anything more than an emergency.

In trying to determine who will replace Adam Dunn in the lineup and at first, the Nationals have multiple options, general manager Mike Rizzo told reporters at the Winter Meetings. The ones Rizzo prefers are outside the organization.

That’s not intended as a knock on Willingham or Michael Morse, the incumbents on the roster deemed most likely to pick up a first baseman’s mitt. They are the proverbial Plan B (and, well, C), and Rizzo fully expects to have a legitimate first baseman with experience on his resume long before the Nationals report to Viera, Fla., for spring training in mid-February.

Morse has 37 games at first base in parts of six seasons, which makes him experienced compared to Willingham’s three games at the position in seven seasons, five f them full campaigns. Willingham, at this point, is as likely to wind up at first base as he is to catch - and he came up with the Marlins in 2004 as a backstop.

Rizzo fielded offers for Willingham at the Winter Meetings, left Lake Buena Vista, Fla., with the 31-year-old still on his roster. And that’s where Willingham is likely to stay through the 2011 season before his first crack at free agency and the multiyear contract he’s been trying to talk the Nationals into.
Why keep Willingham around instead of trading him and getting something for him before he hits free agency? Early projections (read: guesses) at the Elias rankings indicate that another typical Willingham season - his career average is 20 homers and 66 RBIs over the past five years - could make him a Type A free agent. If that happens, Willingham could be more valuable as a departing free agent than as a trade chip anytime from now through the 2011 campaign.

It’s doubtful Willingham would fetch two top-tier prospects in any trade. He’s a useful player, but not worthy of that kind of haul. However, if he ranks as a Type A player, and is signed by another team, Willingham would bring two draft picks - the signing team’s first-rounder and a sandwich pick after the first round.

Willingham has experienced back problems off and on during his career, and first base is no place for a guy with a balky back. All that reaching, twisting and throwing wouldn’t be good. Left field is a much safer place for Willingham, though a knee injury cut his 2010 short after Aug. 15, after Willingham had hit .268 with 16 homers and 56 RBIs after 114 games.

Those signs point to the right-handed-hitting Willingham remaining in Washington next season, perhaps sharing left field in a platoon with lefty-swinging Roger Bernadina.