Only one year removed from a year in which they were 25th in all of baseball in both runs per game and total runs, the once offensively challenged Twins find themselves with something like a surplus of productive hitters. The emergence of Josh Willingham combined with the improved health (so far) of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and the production of newly acquired Ryan Doumit and suddenly this team relies more on its offense than its admittedly horrible pitching to have a chance to win games.
From this unexpected situation comes the logical suggestion that the Twins should shop one of these productive hitters to bolster their pitching depth. Teams have shown interest in Willingham and Denard Span especially on the offensive side of things. On the surface, it appears to be an obvious move the team should make. Unfortunately, when it comes to trading offensive players for pitchers, it is not that simple.
First of all this is complicated for the Twins by their fancy new park, Target Field. Up until this season it played like a large pitcher’s park, with effects less extreme than venues such as AT&T Park or Petco Field but noticeable nevertheless. For some reason, whether because of the heat or simply because of bad pitching, home runs and other offensive numbers are up significantly this season. The organization is presumably still trying to figure out two things: what type of park they truly have, and then what type of team to build to best take advantage of it.
For the sake of argument, let’s presume that a larger sample size will show Target Field to be the pitcher friendly park it was in its first seasons. On the one hand it might seem like a prudent decision to then stack up pitching and try to win lots of low scoring games. On the other hand, if you build a team that truly cannot score runs you might find yourself in the situation the San Francisco Giants found themselves in last year. Once Buster Posey was injured, they simply could not support those stellar pitchers. Speaking of injuries…
…the harsh reality of last season for the Twins is the proneness to injury of their two stars, Mauer and Morneau. Let’s say that this team built its pitching staff up to respectability in a short time from now (ambitious, I know). Let’s also say that trading Josh Willingham was part of that process. In that scenario, the Twins are one concussion or “leg fatigue” away from finding themselves in a predicament that is part 2011 Twins and part 2011 Giants.
Besides the distinctiveness of Target Field, there is another reason this type of trade for pitching is not always possible.
Good pitching is the currency of Major League Baseball. It is to baseball what 7 footers are to the NBA or what quarterbacks are to the NFL. Pitchers are worth more than hitters. So it most likely is wishful thinking to assume that Willingham, even with two team-friendly years on his contract after this season, would bring in the maximum value the Twins would want. The power in those negotiations always lies with the team who is willing to part with pitching, because frankly not many teams are. Those who do need a bat are likely going to want the Twins or any other team selling a bat to settle for less than ideal value; if that doesn’t work, they very well might take their chances with scant offense rather than part with the solid gold that is good pitchers.
If the Twins could truly maximize the value of hitters like Span or Willingham it might be a great plan to trade them for pitching at this month’s deadline. The reality is that this is unlikely or in many cases impossible in today’s MLB climate. They will most likely be better off keeping the solid lineup they currently enjoy and looking for other paths to build organizational depth at pitcher.