To the Florida Marlins, Josh Willingham's potential at the plate was never a mystery. Finding where to slot him defensively, though, raised questions.
Their 17th-round pick in the 2000 Draft wasn't clumsy or lumbering -- he'd been a decent shortstop at the University of North Alabama. The issue was that his hitting had developed so quickly and naturally that the other aspects of his game didn't have a chance to catch up. In some ways, he was an ordinary prospect. When he picked up a bat, though, he looked almost like a Major League hitter, and the Marlins explored options that would allow them to rush him to the big leagues.
Marlins director of player development Brian Chattin, who's worked in Florida's front office since 2003, recognizes that the too-hot-hitter dilemma was a pretty good problem to have with a youngster.
"He was one of these players who was so advanced offensively, he had such a strong bat," Chattin explained, "that we had to find where he fit in on defense with the other prospects and big leaguers we already had."
That meant a lot of bouncing around for Willingham. In his first pro season alone, he played outfield and every infield position and occasionally was the designated hitter. The following season, Willingham settled in at third base for Class A Kane County in the Midwest League; in 2002, he moved up to the Florida State League and spent most of his time at first base.
Sticking Willingham at first base for the long haul may have been the easiest answer, but it wasn't necessarily the best one.
"We didn't consider [leaving him at] first base because he had the athleticism" that could benefit the Marlins elsewhere, Chattin said.
Before the 2003 season, the Florida front office came up with a new plan for the prospect, who bashed 17 homers and stole 18 bases in 107 games in '02.
"We tried him behind the plate," Chattin said. "That was our big experiment."
For Willingham, the latest switch meant one thing: opportunity.
"Everyday catchers are hard to come by, especially one that can swing the bat," he told his hometown newspaper, the Times-Daily of Florence, Ala. "If I can develop into a decent catcher and keep swinging the bat well, I think I have a shot at the big leagues."
It wasn't only the lack of power-hitting backstops that motivated the switch, though. The Marlins saw that Willingham possessed traits essential to a good catcher.
"We thought his arm strength and durability would work well there," Chattin said.
Durability was something Willingham had in spades. In 2002, he'd collected 30 RBIs by May 21, when he took a 92-mph fastball in the face, breaking several bones.
"The first thing I did was make sure all my teeth were there," Willingham told the Times-Daily.
While he didn't sustain any dental damage, the pitch put a crimp in the Marlins' plan to have Willingham gain as much Minors experience as quickly as possible. But he showed resilience in getting back on the field in just over a month. He was hitless in his first two games back, then homered twice, drove in three runs and scored three times on June 26.
"It limited him a little bit that season, but he's so tough as nails," Chattin said.
The gamble on Willingham's toughness looked like it would pay long-term dividends. While the wear and tear of catching can keep offensive numbers down with some prospects, Willingham kept producing. He collected 17 doubles and 12 homers in 59 games with the Hammerheads and stayed hot in a stint with Double-A Carolina in the Southern League.
The grind behind the plate, Chattin said, "really didn't affect his bat much," and it was decided Willingham would begin the 2004 season as the Mudcats' No. 1 catcher. In Carolina, he worked under a manager who knew well the challenges of donning the tools of ignorance day in and day out.
"I saw no signs that he could not [become a Major League catcher]," said skipper Ron Hassey, who caught for the Indians, Cubs, Yankees, White Sox, A's and Expos during a 14-season Major League career. "He could be your No. 1 guy behind the plate and catch for you every day or almost every day in the big leagues, but he needed more time to get there."
For the time being, Hassey felt fortunate to have Willingham on his team and made sure he logged the necessary innings behind the plate to learn the finer points of catching.
"He's just a very fierce competitor. He's the kind of guy I looked at to be an impact player," Hassey said. "In terms of fundamentals like blocking pitches, he was good. He had pretty good arm strength and a good release. ... He needed more experience calling games and working with pitchers."
When injuries or personnel changes left the Mudcats thin at other positions, Hassey had a simple fix. The priority was getting Willingham adjusted to the catcher position, but when the situation demanded it, he could grab a glove and play almost anywhere.
"Mainly, he caught for me," recalled Hassey, but "he played in the outfield, he played third base. ... Overall, he's the kind of guy you could put in a number of positions. He can play a lot of places."
In the meantime, Willingham was hitting as well as ever. In 112 games, he totaled 24 homers and 24 doubles while hitting .281 and walking 91 times. He drove in 76 runs, scored 81 times and had a cup of coffee in the Majors. He got behind the plate in five of the 12 games he played for Florida and hit his first big league homer.
For the opening of the 2005 season, Willingham was back in the Minors with Triple-A Albuquerque of the Pacific Coast League.
"It's like most other prospects. Guys need Minor League at-bats," Chattin said. "They need to get the time in and get comfortable."
In Albuquerque, Willingham showed from the outset that he was comfortable.
"That was his first time in Triple-A and he was not overmatched at all," said Dean Treanor, who managed the Isotopes that season. "A lot of times, a player gets to that level and he's not sure he belongs. There's a lot of good pitching there, sometimes you face veteran pitchers, but from the way he carried himself, it was obvious he wasn't overmatched."
Willingham earned PCL Player of the Month honors for May after hitting .344 with 12 homers and 29 RBIs. He continued to dominate until a stress fracture in his left arm sidelined him in late June. If not for the injury, he may have spent the second half of the season in the Majors.
"You get that close to the big leagues, then something like that happens. It's frustrating, no question," Treanor said.
Despite the seriousness of the injury, Willingham was back on the field in August.
"It's a couple things. He's a tough guy. That helps. But he's also a good worker," Chattin said. "He approached the rehab in the right way."
When he returned to the Minors, he didn't stay very long. After two games at Jupiter and six more with Albuquerque, he ended the season with the Marlins, where he spent the next three years in left field before a trade to the Nationals.
Was Willingham's road to "The Show" slowed by his defensive detours?
"Not at all. He progressed steadily," said Chattin. "It was a matter of pushing him along so that he could continue to develop as a hitter. As far as putting him in the outfield, not until he was in the Majors did he really get significant time there and he adjusted to it without much trouble."
Plus, Willingham's multifaceted Minor League career may contribute to his longevity in the big leagues.
"I can see him playing in the Majors for a long time," Hassey said. "He can keep playing left field or he could play third base. ... You could put him at first."
Oh, yeah: "He can even catch in a pinch."
Minor League career breakdown
2000: After being picked in the 17th round of the First-Year Player Draft, Willingham reported to Utica of the short-season New York-Penn League. He played first base, second, shortstop, third and the outfield and DH'd as the Marlins looked for an opportunity to promote him as quickly as possible. He had a .400 on-base percentage and collected 22 extra-base hits in 65 games for the Blue Sox.
2001: Willingham played 87 of 97 games at third base for Class A Kane County of the Midwest League. Continuing to hit the ball hard, he had 20 doubles, seven homers and a pair of triples. He also walked 53 times and showed speed with 24 steals.
2002-'03: A 92-mph fastball broke several bones in Willingham's face in late May, but he managed to belt 17 homers, steal 18 bases and compile a .487 slugging percentage in 107 games for Class A Advanced Jupiter. Willingham was back in the Florida State League the following year to begin his transition to catcher. He played 36 of 59 games behind the plate and stayed locked in at the dish with 30 extra-base hits.
2003-'04: In 22 games, Willingham proved he could handle the promotion to the Southern League's Carolina Mudcats. He slugged .582 and put up a .434 on-base percentage -- enough to convince the Marlins he was ready to begin the 2004 season at Double-A. As the Mudcats' regular catcher, Willingham batted .281 with 24 homers and 24 doubles, knocking in 76 runs and drawing 91 walks. His performance earned him a brief callup to Florida, where he caught five games, played the outfield in three and was used as a pinch-hitter in four.
2005: In his final Minor League season, Willingham was shipped to Triple-A Albuquerque of the Pacific Coast League. He started the year with a bang before being sidelined with a stress fracture. Still, he played in 66 games for the Isotopes and totaled 19 homers and 54 RBIs. He caught in all but six of his Triple-A contests.