Josh Willingham has been the strongest, most consistent hitter on the Twins this year. That’s exactly why they need to trade him away as soon as possible. Common sense demands that the Twins deal their power-hitting left fielder because they are doomed to a losing season and because Willingham’s bat and three year contract make him their best trade commodity.
Even an optimistic three year old could tell you that the Twins are going nowhere this year. They would be luck to win 60 games. Teams in that situation should never hold on to their veteran players, especially not if those players are likely to be more than 35 years old before the team has a chance to contend again. It’s doubly urgent for the Twins to start selling this season, because they blew their chance to do so last season. The Twins need to get younger, faster, and better on the mound, and Willingham cannot help in any of those areas.
But he could help a better team, perhaps enough to carry them deep into the playoffs. Willingham almost single-handedly carried the Twins offense through the season’s first month with his long home runs to left field. MLB’s division races are tightly-packed right now, and adding a player like Willingham could be just the thing to help one team pull away in the standings. His high on-base rate and right-handed power could make a big difference in a lineup.
And then there’s his contract. Willingham is signed through 2014 to a very reasonable $7 million per year salary. So any team that trades for him would not be getting just a half season rental; they are getting a player who could help them contend next year or the year after. Thus, the Twins could ask for some legitimately talented prospects in return.
According to MLB Trade Rumors, at least one GM predicts that Willingham could make a big splash on the market. And a quick glance at some contending teams’ stats pages shows that there are plenty of clubs that could use an outfielder or a DH who can hit. Texas, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Washington, Tampa, Florida, and both New York teams are all leading their divisions or within a few games of the lead, and all have at least one questionable outfield spot. Some of those teams have already shown interest in Willingham; last offseason there were at least nine teams pursuing him as a free agent, Cincinnati and Tampa among them. The Indians were also quite smitten with Willingham, so they would be a possibility if the Twins were interested in a trade within the division.
Why sell now? Why not wait for the trade deadline? Two reasons. First, this could be a seller’s market right now for the Twins. Aside from the Twins, Cubs, Padres, and Rockies, there really are not any MLB teams that have no chance at making the playoffs. The vast majority of baseball’s teams are thinking about winning in 2012 right now. But closer to the trade deadline, some of those teams will have lost some games, and some will be willing to trade away their own right-handed outfielders, which will take away the Twins’ trade market monopoly. The second reason to trade him now is that his OPS for the year is about 90 points higher than his career total. That means that his value is probably as high now as it will ever be. Since the old cliche about selling high is just as relevant to baseball as it is to the stock market, the Twins need to start making calls now. If Willingham were to hit a slump (as almost every player eventually does over the course of a season), he would look a lot less attractive to a contending team.
As fun as it is to watch Willingham hit for the Twins, this team needs young pitching prospects far more than it needs a veteran corner outfielder. If Terry Ryan has not already made some phone calls to gauge interest, he should do so immediately.