Today brought news that everyone's favorite Mariner will be hanging around for at least the next two seasons at a cost of $625k in 2006 and $850k in 2007 (plus a small signing bonus and a few incentives). This contract brings our count of remaining arbitration-eligible players down to one, with Gil Meche asking for $4.2m and the Mariners countering with a $3.35m offer (I know, I know, but whatever, that's for another day).
As is the case with everything, there are extremists when it comes to discussing Willie Ballgame's value to the ballclub - on one side, you have the people who argue that he needs to become an everyday player, and on the other you have the people who don't think he's any better than a randomly-generated minor league infielder that you can pick up off the scrap heap. We've been hearing the two sides of this debate for what feels like forever.
What I find most interesting, though, is how the "middle ground" opinion has evolved since Willie broke in four years ago. I'd say that among the knowledgeable sector of the fanbase, initial consensus was that he'd never amount to anything, that the Mariners were just wasting their time with a crappy player. This argument was validated when Bloomquist flopped as a potential replacement for Jeff Cirillo. He was an awful hitter whose ceiling was as a slightly less awful hitter.
That said, over the past year or two I've noticed a shift in opinion. As the organization began to see Willie as less of a potential starter and more of a utility player, it's become apparent that he does have a little value in that role. He's played at least 15 games at six different positions in his career, playing none of them terribly. His bat, while bad, has its uses, in that he can make contact and spot-start against lefties without embarrassing himself. Perhaps most importantly, Willie's an excellent basestealer, having been successful on 34 of his 39 attempts for a remarkable 87% success rate. 12 of those steals have come in "close and late" situations. You really couldn't ask for a better pinch-runner, and given that he can do a couple other things as well, he's worth having around.
That these things are true isn't the main point here, though. What matters is that people (myself included) are beginning to realize that Willie isn't as bad as he was made out to be after all. He's still not a guy you like to see in the starting lineup very often, as he's never going to turn into much of a hitter, but he's an asset off the bench, and at 28 years old, there's a good chance that he could still improve a little bit.
This team has much bigger problems than Willie Ballgame. Even if you don't like the idea of keeping him around for another two years, the reality of the matter is that his contract is cheap, and you aren't going to find very many better 25th men. Worry about Washburn, or Beltre, or Reed, but don't worry about Willie. It's just not worth it.