Revisiting the Bonifacio trade

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It was about a year ago at this time that Emilio Bonifacio — recently acquired by the Nationals for Jon Rauch — was tearing up the basepaths and making fine plays at second base, prompting former GM Jim Bowden to essentially declare him Washington’s leadoff man and second baseman in 2009 and beyond.

Well, at some point last November, Bowden got off the phone with Marlins GM Larry Beinfest and came to the following conclusion: Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen were more valuable than Bonifacio. Today, that obviously sounds like a no-brainer. But at the time, there was no guarantee.

We don’t often give Bowden credit for his baseball moves during 4 1/2 tumultuous years as Nationals GM, but give him credit for this one. The Willingham-Olsen-Bonifacio trade may go down as Bowden’s best move (and yes, I realize there aren’t exactly a ton of top contenders for that honor).

Back on Opening Day, when Bonifacio was terrorizing his former team and making SportsCenter highlights with his inside-the-park home run, there had to be some fear among Nats officials that they’d been robbed by the Marlins. But Bonifacio’s greatness lasted about a week, and since then he’s been decidedly subpar. Entering tonight’s game, he’s batting a mediocre .252, with an abysmal .303 on-base percentage. He’s stolen 20 of 29 bases, but he’s struck out an astounding 93 times in 449 at-bats (terrible numbers for a slap hitter). He was a disaster at third base, committing 14 errors, and he’s since been reduced to a super-utility man.

As for Willingham and Olsen … well, you know the story. Willingham has established himself as a cornerstone to one of the most-potent 3-4-5 batting combos in the majors (along with Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn). Even though he’s tailed off in the last two weeks — 6-for-44 since Aug. 26 — Willingham still is on pace to hit .281 with 25 homers, 68 RBI and 33 doubles. Underappreciated is his .388 on-base percentage and his .931 OPS (which ranks ninth in the NL).

Olsen wasn’t nearly as big a success story, going 2-4 with a 6.03 ERA in 11 starts before a torn labrum abruptly ended his season. There’s still some question whether the Nats will offer him arbitration this winter — he’s guaranteed to make at least $2.24 million — but given the tenuous nature of young pitching, I wouldn’t be stunned if Olsen returns and helps provide some stability to the rotation.

Even if the Nats let him go, though, I think it’s safe to say they still won that trade. Who wouldn’t take Willingham straight-up for Bonifacio right now? For Washington, it’s a good thing Bowden agreed.

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Mark Zuckerman

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