Remembering Brad Wilkerson

Quick, which Nationals player hit the first grand slam in team history? Who was the first Nats player to hit for the cycle after relocating to Washington? Heck, who was the first hitter in Nationals’ history? The answer to each of these trivia questions is the subject of this Time Capsule: former Montreal Expos and Washington Nationals outfielder Brad Wilkerson.

Drafted out of the University of Florida, Wilkerson was selected by the Montreal Expos in the first round, 33rd overall, in the 1998 MLB Draft. While in college, Wilkerson became the first collegiate player in history to hit 20 home runs, steal 20 bases, and win 10 games as a pitcher in the same season. After trudging through the minor leagues for three seasons, Wilkerson made his major league debut for Montreal on July 12, 2001 and spent the rest of the season getting acclimated to the big leagues, hitting .205/.304/.325 in his 117 at-bats.

However, Wilkerson built upon his experience in 2001 and truly blossomed in his sophomore season in the majors, batting .266/.370/.469 with 20 home runs and finishing as runner-up in the 2002 National League Rookie of the Year voting. Proving that 2002 was not a fluke, Wilkerson returned in 2003 and posted virtually identical statistics, providing the Expos with a .268/.380/.464 batting line with 19 home runs and 13 stolen bases, and in doing so, made a strong case as one of the top young players in baseball.

The Expos’ last season in Montreal in 2004 would represent his career year, as he broke out with a .255/.374/.498 slash line, with 32 home runs, 13 stolen bases, and 106 total walks while playing all three outfield positions and first base. Wilkerson will also be remembered for hitting the last home run in Expos history.

As we know, the following season Montreal moved to the nation’s capital, with Wilkerson and the likes of Jose Guillen, Livan Hernandez, Nick Johnson, and Jose Vidro forming the nucleus of an overachieving franchise that spent a great deal of time in first place that season. Wilkerson did his part, hitting .248/.351/.405 with 11 home runs and 57 runs batted in, acting as the catalyst for the offense as the leadoff hitter and playing solid defense all over the outfield.

After playing an integral part of the inaugural Nationals team, Wilkerson was used as the key piece in the first blockbuster trade in Nationals’ history that December, as the Nats shipped him, outfielder Terrmel Sledge, and pitcher Armando Galarraga to the Texas Rangers in exchange for future outfielder Alfonso Soriano. Normally a trade to the hitter’s paradise at the Ballpark at Arlington is a nice boost to a batter’s statistics, yet Wilkerson’s career took a turn for the worst after leaving the Nationals organization and arriving in Texas.

As a member of the Rangers in 2006, Wilkerson provided Texas with a .222/.306/.422 line with 15 home runs and 116 total strikeouts in only 95 games played, as he battled injuries much of the season. Wilkerson did rebound in 2007 to post a .234/.319/.467 and 20 home runs in 119 games played before the Rangers decided to part ways with him after the season.

That off-season Wilkerson signed with the Seattle Mariners and struggled in his 56 at-bats before the team decided to release him in early May. Wilkerson quickly signed with Toronto and gave the Blue Jays a .216/.297/.332 and four home runs in 208 at-bats before injuries prematurely ended his 2008 season. Wilkerson decided to sign with the Boston Red Sox that off-season but retired from baseball before the beginning of the 2009 season. For his eight-year major league career, Wilkerson posted a .247/.350/.440 batting line with 122 home runs and 53 stolen bases over 972 games played.

Wilkerson was a player ahead of his time, and under-appreciated during his career, as he spent most of his prime in Montreal and his excellent on-base skills were overlooked compared to his low batting average and high number of strikeouts. Today, with the influence of sabermetrics and the organization now in a major media market, Wilkerson would have had a larger reputation amongst fans and likely would have made an All-Star appearance or two in his career. Nevertheless, although his time with Washington was rather brief, he should hold a special place in Nats fans’ memories as the center fielder on the 2005 inaugural Nationals team and the first player to get a hit in team history.

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