As the July 31st trade deadline approaches, the Twins are judging which players should be dealt. Denard Span and Francisco Liriano are atop that list, but perhaps the most valuable player Minnesota possesses will likely remain here into August. Josh Willingham, who has been even better than I think anyone expected, is oddly not being shopped around, according to 1500 ESPN.
Willingham currently has a .271/.384/.551 triple slash this year, and that doesn’t even include his 2 HR game from Tuesday night. Even excluding those 2 HR, this season has easily been Willingham’s best of his career. His .935 OPS in 2012 is .088 higher than his career, and .072 higher than his previous career best in OPS (2009 with Washington). His WAR is already a career best, though a slump definitely could change that.
With all these positives, along with good health, Willingham’s trade value is sky-high. But, the Twins don’t want to trade him, and that is a huge mistake.
The Twins are citing the fear that trading Willingham after signing him to a 3-year contract will chase away future free agents from signing multi-year contracts in Minnesota. I laugh at this argument. When the Twins signed Willingham, his 3-year, $21 million contract was easily the largest contract the Twins ever handed out to a free agent. Yes, they have signed Joe Mauer, Joe Nathan, Johan Santana, and others to heftier contracts, but Willingham’s contract was both the longest and most expensive free agent contract in Twins franchise history. The closest to topping his contract was Carl Pavano’s 2-year, $16.5 million contract signed prior to the 2011 season.
Clearly, the Twins have never been big players in free agency, so why are they afraid of chasing away mid-level free agents? Besides, if the team is willing to accept that they are rebuilding, signing Willingham-level players would no longer be a priority. Also, the Twins handed out a 2-year contract extension to Ryan Doumit, who originally came to Minnesota on a 1-year, $3 million contract. If Terry Ryan fears other players will shy away from joining the Twins because of a Willingham trade, the he could always counter with Doumit’s extension as an example where they kept a player instead of dealing him.
There is likely another reason that the Twins brass hasn’t shared, but I think is quite relevant. In trading Willingham, the Twins would lose one of their potential big stars for 2013. Next season, the big draw is Joe Mauer and…. who else? Ryan Doumit? Not really. Justin Morneau? He’s no longer the player he was prior to his concussions. Trevor Plouffe? This 2012 outburst has been nice, but we have to be wary that he might just be this year’s 2011 Brent Lillibridge. Keeping Willingham would provide another draw for fans, especially those that are still convinced that Mauer is a waste of $23 million per year.
However, as I mentioned before, this season has been a career year for Willingham. Next season, he’s likely going to regress to something around his career norms. There’s always the risk that he puts up numbers below his averages, or he gets hurt and misses part of the year. The likelihood of him having another year like this one is not good, and the Twins should recognize that and take advantage while they still have the ability.
In trading Willingham, the Twins do sacrifice a bit of the near future, but they could solve many problems that could arise in the next couple years. For one, they have been lacking good starting pitching and middle infielders for a while now. A trade could bring back a prospect or two that could fill either one or both of these holes in 2014. Denard Span might have similar trade value to Willingham right now, but I have to think that teams would find Willingham as the more attractive option of these two players right now.
The Twins have had a history lately of selling players when their trade value is extremely low. Holding on to Willingham after this season would be a colossal mistake, and trading him within the next week while his value has peaked would greatly help the team in 2014 and beyond.