Updated: July 4th, 2013 2:56am
Warne: Trading Josh Willingham not a legitimate option for Twins

Warne: Trading Josh Willingham not a legitimate option for Twins

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by Brandon Warne
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's become all too convenient to ridicule the Minnesota Twins for how the Josh Willingham situation has played out.

From the trade scenarios that never went down, to the fact that Willingham ended up undergoing arthroscopic surgery even though the Twins initially suspected the two-week window would be roughly enough time to get the right-handed slugger back up and running.

If only those scenarios were as cut and dried as they are sometimes portrayed.

It's worth noting that the preliminary reports on Willingham came before the doctor read his MRI, so it became a rest and rehab issue.

It could have stayed that way. According to Willingham, he could have rested for two or three weeks, let the bone bruise heal and come back despite a meniscus issue.

But the low-end estimate of him having the scope, which was performed by team physician John Steubs Wednesday morning, was four weeks of downtime. Ultimately Willingham made the call to undergo the procedure with so little of a discrepancy between timetables.

It's pretty hard to place any fault there.

But lately the voices in the "should have traded Willingham" crowd have grown louder, almost exponentially over the past couple months as a once vital slugger has withered before fans' very eyes. Since the botched slide against the Rangers in late April, Willingham's OPS has dropped almost 200 points.

It isn't hard to see why the voices have cropped up. Last season, Willingham captivated Target Field audiences by reaching the unreachable. That is, the left field stands as Willingham hit a career-high 35 home runs (21 at home), with just one of them to the right of dead center (via Texas Leaguers).

Through the first two years at Target Field, the Twins had only hit 98 home runs, while Willingham dropped one-fifth as many at home in just one year.

Now Willingham's slugging percentage (.398) is lower than Joe Mauer's on-base percentage (.399).

It'd be hard to argue that Willingham's value could have gotten any higher that it was between last trade deadline and spring training. Consider Willingham's cheap contract, great season, low-key personality, and it all adds up that the Twins should have cashed in, right?

Well, not exactly.

One American League executive told 1500 ESPN last season that Willingham would definitely not yield a top-end starter. In fact, that same executive suggested the Twins would have to settle for a No. 3 or 4 starter if moving Willingham was deemed viable.

It's easy to say swap out Willingham for any starting pitching looking back on some of the guys who started games for the Twins last year, but there are a few key points to keep in mind:

• Willingham had just signed a free agent deal a few months prior, and while the Twins have readily admitted that they haven't traversed the "trading a free agent early in the deal" waters, they also didn't have any idea where they'd replace that production from, according to assistant general manager Rob Antony.

The other prevailing wisdom -- which has neither been confirmed nor denied by Twins brass -- is that future free agents would be gun shy about signing with a team which shows penchant for (legal) sign-and-trades. That is, signing a free agent and then flipping him once he's eligible to be dealt (June of the first year).

• To that end, also keep in mind that the other two-thirds of the starting outfield was Denard Span and Ben Revere. Trading Willingham probably makes for a starting outfield of Darin Mastroianni-Span-Revere. No doubt a pitcher's delight, but a group that might have been hard-pressed to crack a collective OPS of .700. And if the pitching staff was that bad with two-thirds of the outfield covered by excellent defenders, it's unlikely that Mastroianni's defense was going to override Willingham's bat in a one-for-one swap.

It's also easy to speak retroactively as Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia made the jump to the major leagues -- certainly to varying degrees -- making the outfield look a bit more crowded now than it did at last season's trade deadline.

• Even if the Twins got a No. 3 starter, there's no guarantee there. The ideal combination for a deal would be a young, cost-controlled mid-rotation starter.

Actually, the Twins acquired a pitcher like that over the winter.

Vance Worley would no doubt fit the bill there. The same Worley who had a 3.50 career ERA, fanned 7.7 batters per 9 innings, and was actually tabbed the Twins' opening day starter.

Everyone knows how that went.

Without knowing who, if anyone was offered -- the Twins won't name names and rightly so -- there's no way of knowing if the club was offered Homer Bailey, Worley, or something in between. And while it's completely unfair to compare this hypothetical pitcher to Worley, it's also unfair to use this starter as a straw-man who would immediately revitalize this present rotation.

• Willingham's production prior to his injury was right in line with what he'd done in 2012. On the day he was injured, Willingham was hitting .254/.397/.542 with four home runs. The four home runs puts him on a 162-game pace for 39, and that triple-slash is actually better than what he did last year (.260/.366/.524). Willingham would never complain about the knee injury, but it appears obvious it sapped him of power at a time where he was at least as productive as last season.

It may be unfair to expect Willingham to match that production when he returns after multiple weeks off in August, but there's ample evidence that his decline was aided and abetted by injury.

* Willingham is still signed for 2014. That's one more season, and one more trade deadline to shop Willingham's wares in hopes of bringing back talent. He'll still make a modest $7 million, which means he should still be a relatively attractive trade chip, even if he doesn't bring back prime value, the Twins should still be able to make a move.

Of course, there's also a chance he could clear waivers -- possible, but perhaps not likely -- or he could simply come back, produce, and make it all a moot point. Nobody's really quite sure -- and this includes Ryan -- but at this point it's just a wait-and-see game for all involved.

So there's a multitude of reasons that can help one understand why the Twins didn't just flip Willingham for the top bidder. The bids weren't that high, the outfield wasn't that deep, and the Twins just didn't feel it was wise.

Brandon Warne covers the Minnesota Twins for 1500ESPN.com. He has also contributed as a baseball analyst for Fangraphs.com and BaseballProspectus.com
Email Brandon | @Brandon_Warne
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