- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2008

At this point in their development, the Washington Nationals have neither the capital nor the collateral to acquire the kinds of players who immediately will transform their weary roster into that of a proven contender.

So even when they trade for a pair of proven big leaguers - which Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen certainly are - the Nationals inherit questions they must answer.

That has been the case the last two offseasons, and it appears to be again. Willingham and Olsen, who arrived in the District for a meet-and-greet with reporters Wednesday after the Nationals announced they had acquired the outfielder and pitcher from the Florida Marlins for second baseman Emilio Bonifacio and a pair of prospects, reintroduce a pair of skeletons Washington is all too familiar with: durability and character.

The first is Willingham’s issue; he missed 60 games last season with a herniated disk in his lower back. Olsen got through the 2008 season without incident, but he had numerous well-publicized confrontations with teammates over the two previous seasons, not to mention a 2007 DUI arrest in which police had to use a Taser to subdue him.

But when the Nationals have a chance to acquire two players with better big league track records than most of their roster, sometimes it’s a matter of doing a little homework and hoping for the best.

“A trade is all about risk,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “It’s about financial risk. It’s about health risk. It’s a chance-to-get-to-the-big leagues risk. There’s a lot of risk that both clubs have to weigh in this transaction. That’s why it took a while to come to conclusion. But [Florida] got three good players from us. We got two good players from them. It was a good baseball trade, I think, for both organizations.”

The two players took disparate paths to the big leagues. Olsen has been a mainstay in the Marlins’ rotation since he was 22, while Willingham lingered in the minors until 2006, when he became a regular for the first time at age 27, hit 26 homers and tied Olsen for ninth in the NL rookie of the year vote.

Their reputations are about as different as their pedigrees. Willingham is hailed as the consummate clubhouse presence, while Olsen’s fiery demeanor has gotten him some unwanted publicity on the field as well as off it.

Given what the Nationals are getting in Olsen - a 24-year-old left-hander who has thrown at least 170 innings in all three of his big league seasons and is due for a big raise this winter in arbitration - there’s plenty riding on their hunch that Olsen has righted himself.

Bowden said the team talked to a passel of Olsen’s teammates from the last several seasons, including third baseman Aaron Boone, who was with the Marlins in 2007 and the Nationals last season, and came away confident Olsen has learned how to use his competitiveness productively.

“I knew that something had to change,” Olsen said. “It started off slow, and you just try to keep yourself out of situations where there might be a problem. That’s the biggest thing with all this maturing that everybody claims I have done.”

Even Willingham saw a change in his teammate last season, saying Olsen did a better job of controlling his emotions on the mound instead of letting them flare up to the point where they hurt him.

“You learn to channel your emotions in different ways and learn how to deal with them,” Willingham said. “It’s one of those things where if you let your emotions get to you, it can affect your performance, and that did not happen with him last year.”

Washington is similarly hopeful that Willingham’s problems are behind him. Dr. Wiemi Douoguih, the team’s medical director, said the herniated disk could flare up again but added the team has him on a program to strengthen his core.

“He really hasn’t had any problems since the last episode,” Douoguih said.

But there’s a chance the left fielder, who hit 15 homers in 351 at-bats last season, could miss a significant chunk of time again, just as there’s a chance Olsen’s tenure with his new team won’t begin smoothly.

All the Nationals can do is conduct their research and cross their fingers.

“We feel they are both coming into their own,” Bowden said. “Certainly, we know what we can expect from them.”

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