What if ... the Nationals hadn’t traded Josh Willingham?

Now that the regular season is over - and we’re likely to be without major Nationals news for at least a couple weeks - we’ve got some time to stretch out and take a little different look at some developments from the season. So in that spirit, I’m going to start an occasional series called “What if ...,” which looks at decisions the Nationals made, or didn’t make, and how they might have turned out differently. We’ll start off today with a deal they made last December: trading Josh Willingham to the Oakland Athletics.

The Nationals had looked at moving Willingham in July 2010, and shortly after the trade deadline, he was shut down for the year with torn cartilage in his knee, which required surgery. He would have been back at full strength in 2011, but concerns about his long-term health and his mobility, coupled with the emergence of Michael Morse, made the Nationals look to trade him before his final year of arbitration. They struck a deal with Oakland on Dec. 16, swapping Willingham for reliever Henry Rodriguez and outfielder Corey Brown.

But suppose they’d kept Willingham, and put him in left field this season. He put up fairly typical numbers (for him) in Oakland, hitting a career-high 29 homers in the A’s cavernous ballpark, but seeing his batting average and OBP drop to .246 and .332, respectively. That took his OPS to .810, which was his lowest mark since becoming a regular player in 2005. If he’d stayed with the Nationals, though, he would have given them another solid bat in the middle of the lineup, and they might have either been able to move him at the deadline or collect two draft picks if they offered him arbitration this winter and let the likely Type A free agent walk.

The decision isn’t that simple, though. At the Winter Meetings, when they had signed Jayson Werth and still had Willingham on their roster, the Nationals seemed intent on signing a first baseman so Michael Morse didn’t have to play there every day.

They didn’t know at that point that Morse could man the position, so they dealt Willingham, put Morse in a group that could play left field and gave Adam LaRoche a two-year deal. If they’d kept Willingham and still signed LaRoche, Morse might have gotten his chance to play first anyway with LaRoche still getting hurt, and the Nationals’ lineup probably would have been a little deeper this year.

As it is, though, they got the chance to see Morse could play a solid first base, an adequate left field and be a force in the middle of their lineup, and there’s no guarantee that would have happened had they had a little deeper roster. From a developmental perspective, that’s of greater significance than if Willingham would have helped the Nationals’ offense win a few more games this year. And in the end, they got enough production from Laynce Nix, Jonny Gomes, Rick Ankiel and others to get by with Morse at first for much of the year; their left fielders had a .771 OPS and 29 homers this year, which is almost what Willingham did in Oakland.

The big question in evaluating the trade will ultimately turn out to be whether Rodriguez and Brown bring back more value than two draft picks would have. General manager Mike Rizzo said last December that the A’s package was better than anything he’d been offered in July for Willingham, and it’s reasonable to assume the market for Willingham wasn’t much better this year, since Oakland didn’t move him at the deadline. Moving a position player for a reliever is always a dicey proposition, and Rodriguez showed both his upside (particularly in September) and his risk this year.

At 25, Brown hit .239 at Triple-A Syracuse, and while the Nationals think he can play in the majors, he was hurt during most of his major league time this year, spraining his ankle in spring training and needing an operation to clean up a staph infection in his knee this September. So the trade could potentially hinge on how effective Rodriguez turns out to be.

What do you think about the way things might have been different if the Nationals had kept Willingham? This isn’t meant to be a second-guessing forum so much as a light-hearted look at what might have changed, although there’s certainly some element of hindsight in this exercise. At any rate, let me know how you think things might have been different, and how you feel about where they’re at now. It’s interesting to look back and see just how many things might have been different as a result of one decision, and I think we’ll have some fun with this.