Trading Willingham: For and Against

Let’s put it this way: when a team is looking up at the Royals in the standings halfway through the season, that team should probably be thinking about selling. The Minnesota Twins are having a miserable year, although it was hardly unexpected. Naturally, this has brought trade speculation about some of their more attractive pieces. The Twins do have some players having good seasons. Joe Maueris one of them, but due to his contract and other issues, he is not that great of a trade option.

The Twins’ most obvious trade bait is outfielder Josh Willingham, who was signed in the off-season for three years and $21 million. Willingham (33) is having a monster year at the plate, hitting .268/.381/.564 (156 wRC+) with 22 home runs already playing in a home park that saps home run power. Willingham has easily outproduced the player he (pretty much) replaced — Michael Cuddyer. (Of course, Cuddyer is also being out-produced by the man he replaced in Colorado, the guy who replaced Wilingham in Oakland: Seth Smith. That is another [hilarious] story. Well, hilarious for people who aren’t Rockies fans.)

A combination of great performance and team-friendly salary would seem to make Willingham a great trade candidate, yet the Twins are reportedly not all that interested in trading him. This is somewhat puzzling, but teams do have reasons for making these decisions. Assuming this is not some sort of smoke screen intended to up the asking price for Willingham, let’s look at the case against the Twins trading Willingham and see how it holds up.

The linked report gives some reasons the Twins are allegedly against trading Willingham. The obvious one is that he is producing extremely well at the plate at a (relatively) low salary. Moreover, the Twins to not want to develop a “reputation of signing players to long-term contracts and trading them away shortly after the ink dries.”

Going beyond the article, let’s try to strengthen the Twins’ case against trading Willingham this year. While the team is doing poorly now, they seem to be in a position where they sort of have to keep going for it over the next season or two given the difficulty of moving Mauer and/or Justin Morneau‘s contracts. Furthermore, there is not an obvious replacement who seems ready to replace Willingham at this point. Joe Benson, for example, is not exactly tearing things up. Along similar lines, the Twins could point out that since they have Willingham for two seasons after this one, there is no need to trade him now with no decent replacement already on the team. Finally, assuming the Twins would be looking for prospects (or young players) in return, it is worth noting that teams really do not trade away good young prospects from the upper levels for veterans very often any more, and Willingham, as good as he is, hardly seems like the kind of player that would be likely to bring one back.

In making the “against” case, I can almost convince myself that the Twins are doing the right thing if they are serious about not shopping Willingham. Obviously, they should only trade for the right return, not just a couple of relievers or something like that. However, I think even the supplemented case against shopping and trying to trade Willingham for something other than a “lopsided” return (any team should do a “lopsided” trade that favors them, so those are not worth discussing in the abstract) does not hold up. Let’s go through the reasons given above.

It is true that Willingham is a very cost-efficient given his performance and salary. Of course, it is quite unlikely that he’s a “true talent” .400 wOBA hitter, but even accounting for regression, giving an extremely negative take on his fielding, and being pessimistic about his health given past issues, Willingham still projects as about a three-win player in terms of true talent. At $7 million per year, that is an excellent bargain these days even for a player in his mid-30s. Moreover, without getting into all the little details, I would esimate Willingham’s true talent at closer to four wins over a full season.

However, pointing out that a player is good, cheap, and thus a great bargain says nothing, on its own, about whether he should be traded or not. The more “surplus value” a player is projected to have, the better his trade value is. IN other words, it could help the case for trading Willingham just as much as it could the side against trading him. Whether or not he should be traded depends on the rest of the team context.

So, jumping to other points mentioned above, is the Twins’ situation such that the have to keep Willingham around? While Minnesota may look stuck in a “go for it” situation, I think the way this year has shaped up so far is showing that to be a bad way of looking at things. They tried to patch holes with players like Willingham, Ryan Doh Mitt, and Jamey Carroll. ALthough some of those moves have individually worked out, the team is still terrible. They still need to rebuild, and the Twins of all teams know that rebuilding begins and ends on the farm. Trading players when their projected surplus value is high will speed that process up.

This point goes to the issue of lack of an immediate replacement, too. Yes, a few additional losses will be painful at first, but a few additional losses for a couple of years probably hurts the team less than being a losing team for an additional couple years (if that makes sense). Just because the teams is “stuck” with Joe Mauer’s contract does not mean they can’t work around it. The Rockies managed to work around Todd Helton‘s contract, for example, and make it to the playoffs a couple of times. Moreover, if the Mauer contract does not show the fans the team’s “commitment,” I am not sure how keeping around Josh Willingham is going to do it.

With respect to the way the team might be perceived by future free agents if they trade Willingham so soon after he signed a three-year deal: Willingham is just one player among many. I do not know Josh Willingham personally, but these guys are professionals. They (and their agents) know they score when they sign with a team in the Twins’ situation. The Twins should be trying to build a future team that is good enough that they are not in a position where trading a player like Willingham is the right move. After all, the reak goal is to win games, not impress free agents. And if they rebuild their farm system, they will not be as reliant on the whims of free agents in the future.

It should go without saying that trading Willingham only makes sense if the Twins can get back some promising young talent. If they really cannot get some good prospects back, then they are right not to trade him. But no one is saying that the Twins have to trade Willingham not matter what, simply that they really need to see what is out there. We have already discussed how valuable Willingham projects to be relative to his salary. Yes, it is true that teams are more miserly about trading prospects than in the past.

That does not mean the Twins should refuse to trade Willingham unless they can get the equivalent to Mike Trout or Bryce Harper back. It is not as if Minnesota is bursting with talent in high minors. or that they just have one or two holes to fill in the majors. Given their numerous needs and the high attrition rate among prospect, getting multiple good (even if non-elite) players for Wilingham could do wonders for the Twins two or three years down the road both in terms of the on-field product that their payroll. And while the Twins do have Willingham signed for three years, enabling them to pass on a trade his summer if they do not see a fair offer, it is also true that the more time there is left on his contract, the more valuable he will be. Perhaps there are not other teams out there that are the right “match” for a trade with the Twins for Willingham, but as for Willingham himself, it is quite unlikely his trade value will never be higher than it is right now.

Before the 2012 season started, the Twins made a good move by letting Michael Cuddyer walk and signing Willingham. They are not obligated to give Willingham away now, either. As I wrote above, in trying to make the case against trading Willingha, I did start to see that side of the argument. However, just as they left sentiment aside when deciding to let “team leader” Cuddyer walk, they should be willing to actively explore a trade involving Willingham in order to improve a future team that might have a chance to contend, even if that means a bit more pain in present.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.