When the Minnesota Twins signed outfielder Josh Willingham to a three-year 21 million dollar contract before the 2012 season, many people around baseball and the organization figured that the signing of Willingham was made to fill in the hole left by the departed Michael Cuddyer. Willingham featured similar skills that Cuddyer offered the Twins, but Willingham was supposed to hit less for average and be worse defensively. While the defensive comparison was accurate, Willingham went on to have a better offensive season than Cuddyer while saving the Twin’s 3.5 million dollars in salary.
Last season, Willingham hit .260 with a career high 35 HR, 110 RBI, .524 slugging percentage and a .366 OBP in 145 games. Such a breakout year from Willingham prompted people around the league to speculate if the Twins would be willing to deal Willingham during the off-season while his value was at its highest. The Twins were put in a similar situation after the 2010 season with Delmon Young who was also coming off the best season of his career. The Twins, in both cases, opted to keep the emerging sluggers in order to keep the heart of their order intact and give the team the best chance to succeed the following season. However, by opting to keep both of these sluggers following the best year of their careers, the Twins never received the same amount of production they had from that career year and cost themselves valuable rebuilding pieces that they could have received had they traded them.
In Young’s case, the Twins likely could have received anywhere from an organization’s number three to number 10 overall prospect and could have even picked up a valuable veteran or emerging youngster as well. Young had age and a friendly contract on his side which made him very attractive to the Twins and other interested organizations that would be willing to make a deal with the Twins who were coming off a first round dismissal in the playoffs. Instead, the Twins held on to Young too long and wound up getting Lester Oliveros and Cole Nelson. Neither Nelson nor Oliveros have contributed to the Twins at the majors and neither appears destined to have much of a future with the Twins or any organization in the big-leagues.
In Willingham’s case, the Twins likely could have received anywhere from a number three prospect to a number six or seven prospect in a package of players from many organizations. Willingham has a friendly contract and was coming off his best season for a team that was not destined to go anywhere and had demonstrated they were willing to make a deal if it meant acquiring talented prospects who could help the team build for the future. Despite the numerous rumors, the Twins opted instead to trade Denard Span and Ben Revere for prospects to help build for the future and they hung on to Willingham. Now that Willingham has started out the season hitting .216 with 10 HR and 34 RBI over 65 games, the Twins may be kicking themselves over the lost value they left on the table by hanging on to Willingham.
With the emergence of Oswaldo Arcia and the recent hot-streak of Chris Parmelee, it appears as if the Twins have legitimate options that could use a bump in playing time and could fill in the majority of the production that Willingham was able to provide. However, hindsight is 20/20 and there is no turning back now for the Twins. Willingham’s value is currently very low and the Twins are left waiting and hoping that Willingham turns it around this season and increases his trade value to respectability before the trade deadline. In which case, the team could then deal him for—hopefully—a few promising prospects; but make no mistake about it, the haul they receive will be nothing of the caliber they could have gotten had they traded him last off-season.
For a team looking toward the future, the failed non-trades of Young and Willingham stand as a testament of why teams should sell high for players having career seasons on teams that are nowhere close to contention. Instead of getting top prospects who could help rebuild an organization, the Twins are left with low-level prospects with much less upside and certainty in their careers. Luckily, there still is time to get a decent return for Willingham—if and when the Twins decide to trade him—but time is running out.