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.


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FieryFurnaces
Guest
FieryFurnaces
4 years 1 month ago

You clearly don’t understand the Twins Matt. The Twins still don’t comprehend that they suck. No quirky stadium advantage, back to mediocrity!

CabreraDeath
Member
CabreraDeath
4 years 1 month ago

Not to be the grammar police (although that is what I’m being in a technical sense), there is a lot of typos that, if not making the article unreadable, surely makes it somewhat annoying.

This site is elite because of its content. But, it loses some of its luster when there are 5-6 typos in a 7-8 paragraph article.

In any event, the Twins should trade Willingham and reap the rewards of what their bargain-based contract will get them. And, as the article attempts to say at the end (I think?), his value will never be higher than it currently is.

chuckb
Member
chuckb
4 years 1 month ago

A person who writes that “there is a lot of typos” should not be critical of someone else’s grammar.

Matty Brown
Member
Member
Matty Brown
4 years 1 month ago

Klassens writing is always riddled with typos and poor grammar. This article just happened to be inexplicably lengthy, thereby containing more errors.

DQ
Guest
DQ
4 years 1 month ago

*are a lot of typos

WSC
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WSC
4 years 1 month ago

I’d upvote this 100 more times if they would let me.

I Agree Guy
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I Agree Guy
4 years 1 month ago

You is correct.

CabreraDeath
Member
CabreraDeath
4 years 1 month ago

Well played. I’m an idiot.

Gary York
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Gary York
4 years 1 month ago

No you’re not.

You were making a suggestion, not publishing an article online. Intuitively, the standards should be higher for the producer of an article than for a commenter. Perhaps people were irritated by your first paragraph, but most of us will sink our fangs into the humor jugular when we have the chance.

jswede
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jswede
4 years 1 month ago

yea – we pay way too much for this to have typos. some people…

mike wants wins
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mike wants wins
4 years 1 month ago

Terry Ryan very clearly stated on the radio yesterday that, given their situation, no one is untoucable. I believe him. I also believe they don’t want to trade a guy that is decent/good, cheap, and under control. Of course, shouldn’t that guy be worth more than a rental?

payroll
Member
payroll
4 years 1 month ago

There is a perception that the Target Field would be hosting a lot fewer fans this year, if not for Willingham. If this is true, then the Pohlads are only keeping Willingham around for the cashflow. Not that the Pohlads are starving, but a likely scenario at their current pace is: Liriano gets an offer better than the 1yr / 12m the Twins will offer (iassuming he keeps striking everyone out after the trade deadline). There’s 1-2 comp picks and $7m extra to piecemeal another waiver wire 40-man next season. Bonus: The Twins finish last and get the no. 1 or 2 pick again next year. Trading Willingham only costs them money and in all likelihood doesn’t help their prospect situation that much.

Paul
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Paul
4 years 1 month ago

There is absolutely no way Liriano will qualify as a compensation free agent after this season given how bad his 2011 was including low innings total, and how bad the first part of this season was. They will undoubtedly get one of the “competitive balance” extra picks, though. Plus, as bad as they are I think it is very unlikely that they will finish with the worst record, more likely 4th or 5th.

I do agree, though, that trading Willingham would be useless, especially since they could get a better return out of a Liriano rental.

Marv
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Marv
4 years 1 month ago

Unfortunately I don’t think Terry Ryan is smart enough to realize this team needs to rebuild. The rebuilding will start when Terry Ryan is fired and the bring in a new GM who is not stuck in the stone age.

Brian
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Brian
4 years 1 month ago

Are you kidding me? Are you seriously blaming Terry Ryan for the team’s current failures?

Terry Ryan was the GM of Twins franchise from the mid 90’to 2007. It was under Terry’s leadership that he acquired:

– Justin Morneau in the 2nd round from the 1999 draft
– Joe Mays from the Mariners for a minor leaguer; Mays would later be an All-Star
– Johann Sanata from the Marlins from the Rule 5 Draft
– Shannon Stewart from the Toronto Blue Jays in 2000 for some nobody
– Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano from the Giants for AJ Pierzynski in 2003

Terry Ryan has also executed many successful low-to-medium-profile trades that helped the Twins (e.g. Loshe, Hunter, Ortiz).

The only reason why the Twins were successful after Ryan’s ‘retirement’ was simply because the core players from the mid 2000’s were still around.

The dude that ruined the franchise, Bill Smith, was fired a few months ago. If anything Terry Ryan is the right man to rebuild the team. Twins fans should be grateful that Smith has returned to save the franchise from imploding itself.

Bartlett Pear
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Bartlett Pear
4 years 1 month ago

Just comes down to what they can get in return, and if Ryan has a clue as to what is a good return. This team has been fleeced so bad recently that Ryan will probably be afraid to deal when he no doubt should be.

Ian
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Ian
4 years 1 month ago

I’m amazed at how many people say things like that. The 2011 Twins were terrible in two areas – bullpen and offense and – merely bad in starting pitching. He did a great job fixing the pen and the offense. Twins OPS+ went from 82 last year to 99 (league avg) this year. The bullpen was easily the worst now has become about 1 run better, despite pitching the second most innings in the AL.

Ryan banked on a starting rotation of Liriano (crazy), Baker (TJ surgery), Pavano (injured), Marquis (needs to stay in NL) and Blackburn (crash/burn) with Hendriks (great AAA, still learning ML) as his first option. That missed by a mile and is easily the main reason the Twins are this bad. But shouldn’t Ryan’s track record indicate that he could still improve it, if given more than 8 months on the job?

Luke in MN
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Luke in MN
4 years 1 month ago

Yeah, the position players on this team are actually better than a lot of contenders. They have one–admittedly HUGE–hole, which is the starting rotation. That’s going to take a lot of work, but they have payroll room to begin to address it next year. Given the extra playoff spot, I think it’s a mistake to put this team into multi-year rebuilding mode. Certainly sell on this year, but not 2013 and 2014.

Brian
Guest
Brian
4 years 1 month ago

Seriously, do all Twins fans have short-term memory? It’s like nobody seems to remember the tremulous times of the mid-90’s before becoming competitive again in the early 2000’s.

Paul
Guest
Paul
4 years 1 month ago

The bottom line is that nobody is going to give up legit starting pitching prospects for Willingham, which is by far the Twins’ biggest organization-wide problem (although I would if I was a GM). He signed there knowing the were not going back to the playoffs immediately. They might have enough young talent to get back into contention in year 3 of his deal, but it would take savvy moves and a managerial change in my opinion, neither of which I would expect to happen.

todmod
Member
todmod
4 years 1 month ago

Pretty curious what the reason is to estimate Willingham is a true talent 4 win player.

His WAR from from 2008 to 2011: 3.0, 2.6, 3.0, 2.1.

Now he already has 3.4 this year, but doesn’t it look like the outlier? And those previous stats were with 3 different teams. Granted, he never was over 136 games in those years, but he has the health history. 3 WAR would seem like a reasonable expectation for Willingham.

Just seemed like an odd comment to throw out with no justification.

Nats Fan
Member
Nats Fan
4 years 1 month ago

if he was able to play 159 games, then he would be a 4 win player. With only 400 ABS he should beat 2.5 wins.

monkey business
Member
monkey business
4 years 1 month ago

Is it so bad that even the NYY wouldn’t trade for Mauer (probably for a pack of gum, or maybe some shorter term salary unload like Mo)?

adohaj
Guest
adohaj
4 years 1 month ago

Only if it’s big league chew.

But really
Mauer wRC+ 141
Martin wRC+ 78

probably more than chewing gum

Blah Blah Blah
Guest
Blah Blah Blah
4 years 1 month ago

Armchair managers one and all, myself included! Having Willingham batting between the M&M boys is the major reason he is doing so well this year and the reason for a better battery than they have had in two years.

So the Twins are looking at another year where no one is emerging as a leader in the starting rotation…They are trying very hard to make Brad Radke look like a Hall of Fame pitcher by comparison.

I think the Twins need to take the starters and lock them in a room with Tony Robbins who will beat into them the skills to focus on winning and maybe even get them to fire walk. Once the starters learn to “lock in the machine” to borrow a turn of phrase, they could turn the win/loss record around.

Maybe these are the right guys, and maybe they aren’t but a lot of talented pitchers have come through the Twins club house through the years and excelled with other teams later on, Mark Redmond & Kyle Loshe to name two. (both with World Serises wins I believe…)

So then what? Time to look for a new pitching coach? I don’t think so but maybe Rick Anderson needs to attend the meeting with Tony Robbins too!

Jeff Johnson
Guest
Jeff Johnson
4 years 1 month ago

It would be nice to have someone proof read these articles. They are hard to follow at times the way they are written. A little surprising for someone who writes for a living.

Caleb W
Guest
Caleb W
4 years 1 month ago

What’s this you say about making a living?

adohaj
Guest
adohaj
4 years 1 month ago

team wRC+ 100
starting pitcher WAR .6

We all know what they need to do.

joe
Guest
joe
4 years 1 month ago

I may be crazily optimistic, but the team is 32-36 since April’s terribly slow 6-16 start against a brutal schedule. The offense has finally come together with very encouraging performances from some younger guys like Revere and Plouffe, and Mauer is back to being Mauer. 32-36 is really not that bad considering they have NO consistent starting pitching. With the bullpen patched up and a fairly productive offense. With the addition of a couple solid (not even great) starters in the offseason this team could be back in contention in the central next year. It wouldn’t be first time they’ve succeed with solid but unspectacular starting pitching.

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