Be careful what you wish for: trading Morneau and Willingham may not bring back as much as people think.
It sounds absurd that a winning season is a possibility for the Minnesota Twins in 2012-13, but early in the year they have surprised everyone by winning opening series against the Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles, and going on a five-game win streak
Many people around the league had the Minnesota placed dead last in the AL Central and thought that the team would end up dealing their two sluggers, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau, at the trade deadline.
“I don’t know how they can avoid finishing last,” an anonymous scout told Sports Illustrated. “Josh Willingham is going to be on everybody’s trade list.”
“If the Twins get off to another bad start it’ll be interesting to see if they begin shopping veterans,” wrote NBC Sports’ Aaron Gleeman. “Justin Morneau will be a free agent after the season and Josh Willingham isn’t exactly part of the long-term plans at age 34.”
Jonah Keri of Grantland.com was exceedingly critical of the Twins, writing that, at best, Mauer finds his lost power, “at least a couple” of the young starting pitchers show signs of improvement “and the Twins do better in trading Morneau and Willingham than they did in flipping Denard Span's very attractive contract to the Nats for minor league starter Alex Meyer.”
That was his best-case scenario.
The Twins probably will not be contending in June: Kevin Correia has been the only stable pitcher in the rotation, Aaron Hicks is still batting below .100 and the Detroit Tigers should be winning more games than they are right now.
On the other hand, Brian Dozier has taken over as the team’s leadoff hitter, Eduardo Escobar has exceeded everyone’s expectations and Mauer and Morneau have looked like themselves.
The rotation is currently holding the team back. Vance Worley had a one-inning outing at home against the New York Mets, Mike Pelfrey barely went two innings against the Royals in Kansas City and Kyle Gibson is still in the minor leagues. Having said that, there is enough offensive firepower on this team that all the rotation has to do is pitch like Correia has been, and the Twins could, gasp, actually be at .500 on July 31.
Make no mistake, it’s a long shot. But it would be huge if they could pull it off.
Trading Morneau, who is in the final year of his contract, is not going to sit well with the casual fans. Many of them own a No. 33 jersey and have seen other popular Twins like Denard Span, Joe Nathan and Danny Valencia leave town recently.
Willingham merchandise doesn’t jump off the shelves like Morneau’s does, but he’s been a great addition during his time in Minnesota. Although his three-year, $21 million contract was the highest amount of money given to a free agent in franchise history, it turned out to be a bargain. Last season, in the first year of his deal, Willingham hit 35 home runs, a career high. He has also had a positive impact on Trevor Plouffe, a power hitter that appeared to be plateauing before the he came to town.
If the Twins are playing .500 baseball in July, they will likely re-sign Morneau and allow Willingham to ride out the last year of his deal. If they are sitting at the bottom of the AL Central, the two are as good as gone.
There is a growing collection of Twins fans that would like to see Minnesota trade Morneau and Willingham for assets. The pitching rotation needs a lot of improvement, Plouffe occasionally struggles defensively at third base and Hicks isn’t hitting major league pitching. Furthermore, Florimon and Escobar are not proven at shortstop, Dozier had a tough season last year and there is some question as to how long Mauer can continue to catch.
Then there’s pitching. Worley and Pelfrey need to break out of their funk, nobody knows Diamond’s ceiling or if Gibson will pitch in the majors this year and the team really needs a bona fide ace.
If Willingham and Morneau are traded for a position player, it will be a shortstop. Miguel Sano (High-A) is one of the best hitting prospects in the minors and could take over for Plouffe at third, Eddie Rosario (High-A) has been playing at both centerfield and second base and Byron Buxton (Single-A) is an outfielder.
The problem with trading for a shortstop is that few to zero prospects are going to be available.
The Texas Rangers aren’t going to trade Jurickson Profar. Francisco Lindor (Cleveland Indians), Javier Baez (Chicago Cubs), Carlos Correa (Houston Astros), Nick Franklin (Seattle Mariners) and Allen Hanson (Pittsburgh Pirates) all are playing for teams that are unlikely to be buyers at the deadline.
That leaves Addison Russell (Oakland A’s), Hak-Ju Lee (Tampa Bay Rays), Didi Gregorious (Arizona Diamondbacks) and possibly Xander Bogaerts (Boston Red Sox) as likely targets. The A’s, D-Backs and Red Sox don’t really need offense, which really just leaves Lee and the Rays as most likely suitor. Unfortunately, Tampa is a well-run, notoriously shrewd organization that is unlikely to give up much for aging hitters like Morneau or Willingham.
The Twins could always try to swap Morneau or Willingham for pitching.
In terms of prospects, Gibson is in Triple-A and could come up this year, but he's also coming off of Tommy John surgery. Alex Meyer and Trevor May are currently in Double-A and probably won’t be up until next year at the earliest. Jose Barrios is still in Single-A.
It is nice to think that Minnesota could get a potential ace for Morneau or Willingham, but it seems unlikely.
Morneau, 31, is still in his prime, but his concussion history is going to make teams think twice about giving up their best pitching prospects for the Canadian first baseman.
Willingham is 34 and unlikely to repeat his performance from last season.
That means that, at best, the Twins will get more of what they have: potential starters that are a few years from pitching in the majors, but nobody that projects to be an ace.
Usually when teams have players that are nearing the end of their contracts, it is a mixed blessing to be .500 at the deadline. Management is usually hesitant to deal popular, productive players, even when a division title is a pipe dream, out of fear that fans will interpret the transactions as a lack of competitive ambition and leave the park empty in the final months of the season.
Therefore, the brass is entangled in a conundrum. In the short term, the fanbase is satisfied because the team is in a pennant race, but in the long term, a trade for prospects would have helped the team make the playoffs earlier.
The Twins have an unusual case, however. Morneau is likely to stay in the Twin Cities if given a fair offer, and a two-year extension would probably keep Willingham in a Twins uniform for the rest of his career.
In short, I don’t see either player leaving unless they are traded away.
Minnesota could keep their powerful lineup intact and hope that Gibson, Meyer and May come up next year and pitch well enough to keep the team competitive and avoid negative backlash from a fanbase that has stuck it out through two miserable seasons. So unlike most rebuilding teams, the Twins are best served by winning as many games as they can this year.
All quotes were obtained first-hand.