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Updated: November 8th, 2012 7:07pm
Mackey: If Twins trade Willingham, the return might be underwhelming

Mackey: If Twins trade Willingham, the return might be underwhelming

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

On the surface, it might sound completely illogical for a 96-loss team with multiple flaws to trade its best hitter.

But dealing Josh Willingham is a realistic possibility for a Minnesota Twins team that currently has only one pitcher penciled into a five-man rotation for 2013. The Twins need arms, and it's likely -- along with free agency -- they'll need to trade from a surplus of outfielders to get them.

Willingham, who earned his first Silver Slugger Award on Thursday, hit .260/.366/.524 with 35 home runs and 110 RBIs -- a career season in what was previously considered a pitcher-friendly ballpark. Prior to 2012, no Twins hitter had knocked 35 balls out of the park since Harmon Killebrew in 1970.

It's also worth noting Willingham racked up career highs in games (145) and plate appearances (615) after missing at least 26 games every year from 2008 through 2011 due to injuries.

At $21 million over three years, Willingham was a major bargain last season.

But...

According to Ultimate Zone Rating, Willingham was among the worst defensive outfielders in baseball at a position that is relatively inexpensive to fill. He also turns 34 years old this offseason and seems destined for full-time designated hitter duties at some point.

Considering all pros and cons, what caliber pitcher(s) could the Twins get in return for Willingham this winter?

"I think 'top half' of the rotation is a little steep -- definitely would not yield a No. 1 or No. 2 starter," said one American League executive. "Maybe a No. 3 if the guy is making some money. Most likely a No. 4.

"There's no doubt Josh has a very good contract, but I really doubt a team would trade a viable starting pitcher for a guy with a strong bat but who is limited defensively. It's a lot easier to find a left-field or DH-type than to trade a good starting pitcher for one and then have to backfill the rotation spot."

Another American League executive said Denard Span is a more valuable trade chip than Willingham.

According to league sources, the Twins were hesitant to shop Willingham at the trade deadline, mostly because he's a really, really good hitter, but also because they didn't want to sign a player (and his family) to a long-term contract and pull the rug out six months later. The Twins are said to be more open to the idea now.

On one hand, if the Twins add pitching this offseason, Willingham's presence in the middle of the order could help propel the team back into contention. On the other hand, 2012 may easily have been Willingham's peak, and nobody knows how steep the drop-off could be.

The Twins have mistimed at least two noteworthy trades in recent years, most notably shortstop J.J. Hardy and outfielder Delmon Young.

Hardy, coming off an injury-plagued campaign in 2010, was dealt to the Baltimore Orioles for two nondescript relief pitchers and wound up hitting 52 home runs over the past two seasons while playing Gold Glove defense. The Twins were stuck with Tsuyoshi Nishioka and a number of other below-average options.

Yes, Hardy signed a three-year, $22.5 million contract and doesn't get on base often, but the Twins flushed $15 million down the toilet with Nishioka. So the difference is negligible.

Young's case is different. He received MVP votes for hitting .298/.333/.493 with 21 home runs and 112 RBIs for the Twins' 2010 playoff team at a dirt-cheap salary ($2.6 million).

The two giant red flags, however, were Young's plodding, clumsy defense at one of the least demanding positions on the field, and his unrepeatable .355 batting average with runners in scoring position. That's not to say Young doesn't deserve credit for his clutch hitting -- he does -- but .355 was roughly 50 points higher than his career average. Not even Albert Pujols and Paul Molitor have such a gap between their career averages and runners in scoring position averages.

Sure, Young was only 25 years old, but his drop-off in 2011 was nearly inevitable. Young did put up good postseason numbers with the Detroit Tigers, but his .267/.299/.403 batting line with 30 home runs over the past two seasons are more indicative of his true talent level -- not his 2010 performance.

The Twins should have traded Young two offseasons ago, rather than waiting for the bottom to fall out.

When deciding whether to deal Willingham, the Twins should keep Young in mind.

But they also shouldn't settle for a No. 4 starter.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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