|Josh Willingham: Trade Bait?|
There's another name that I keep reading as a possible trade chip: Josh Willingham. Willingham has been nothing short of fantastic for the Twins this season, and his offense has essentially made up for his below-average defense (hey, we hired the bat, knowing that the glove came with it, right?). After last night's game, Willingham leads the Twins in runs (37), home runs (13), RBIs (44), and is batting .290 and getting on base at a .405 clip. Here's his ESPN stat sheet if you want more info. He has replaced Michael Cuddyer as the Twins' right-handed power bat, and then some. As the weather heats up, and June becomes July, Terry Ryan almost certainly will get phone calls from organizations looking for a power bat down the stretch. Willingham has made Target Field look small; imagine what he could do in a hitters' park? I have no doubt that Willingham could be a key acquisition for a team looking to stock up for a summer run.
But when he gets those phone calls, Ryan should hang up the phone, and here's just one reason why: trading Willingham in the first half of his first season as a Twin would send the wrong message to future free agents that the Twins will need to acquire down the road. Willingham's 3-year, $21 million contract is the largest ever free agent contract handed out by the Twins. Simply stated, signing (relatively) expensive free agents that came up in other organizations is not the way the Twins do business. Willingham's contract was an aberration to the Twins' traditional business model.
Unfortunately, though, that model probably is going to have to change. With payroll set to come off the books for 2013, and with many vacancies in the pitching rotation -- and few current, reliable in-house options -- Terry Ryan is going to have to sign at least one legitimate free agent starting pitcher to help anchor the rotation in 2013 and beyond. And that's just one area of need.
If the Twins trade Willingham this summer for anything less than a Matt Capps-for-Wilson Ramos haul, it sends the message to future free agent acquisitions that the Twins will deal you in a heartbeat if things go south. Yes, we all hoped the Twins would be much better in 2012 than they were in 2011, and that hasn't exactly been the case. But if I am the agent for a player set to become a free agent after this season, and I am fielding calls from the Twins, who recently traded away Willingham after only 1/6 of his contract, my first question to Terry Ryan is "what kind of security can you provide for my client?" In short, my worry is that the Twins will create reputation that could complicate future deals, simply because they do not have an established track record with longer-term free agent contracts with players from other organizations.
Yes, I know that baseball is a business -- often a dirty business behind closed doors. Fans see the green grass, the chalk lines, the uniforms, and that's about it. They don't see the negotiations, the holdouts, and the underpaid minor leaguers living 6 in an apartment with 1 Foreman grill between them. The point here is that the Twins don't exactly have an established history of handing out multi-year, multi-million dollar free agent contracts, and a short tenure for Willingham in Minnesota could spell trouble for future deals. If I'm that free agent pitcher deciding between clubs, I either need more money from Minnesota, knowing that they might dump me in my first season, or protection in the form of a no-trade clause, in order for a deal to happen. This isn't about hurt feelings from players being dealt; it's about business and security -- and players care about those things.
This all might be a moot point, anyway. I simply don't see the Twins dealing Willingham this season. The organization is very fond of players of Willingham's ilk. And just think of what the team's record would be right now without The Hammer?