Thursday, February 6, 2014

Eye on 2014: Left field

Josh Willingham
hit 35 homers in 2012
but fell off to 14
last year.
We know this: Josh Willingham, if healthy, will be the Twins left fielder to open the season.

Whether he will be there at season's end is another matter.

Willingham turns 35 this month, and this is the last year of his contract. Outfield is one of the minor league system's strong suits, and I don't expect the Twins to make a strong push to retain him past 2014.

Even healthy, he may not be particularly valuable. He doesn't help a team in the field or on the bases, and his offense is basically limited to the long ball. Power is a valued commodity, of course, and if the Hammer is healthy and productive this summer, there might be a trade market for him.

That's the best case scenario for the Twins with him: That he's fully recovered from last year's knee injury and hitting well into the summer, making him a useful trade chip. But we shouldn't delude ourselves into believing that he could be traded for a high-end pitcher, or even a high-end prospect. At his best, Willingham is a flawed player, and there's a limit to what teams will surrender for a two- or three-month rental.

Heck, he's basically the same player as Nelson Cruz — right-handed slugger, an "outfielder" of minimal defensive value — except that Willingham is two years older. Cruz can't find a taker on the free agent market, although a big part of that is that he will cost a draft pick and presumably he's seeking more than twice Willingham's salary. (Cruz turned down a qualifying offer from Texas, which would be something in excess of $14 million for one year; Willingham is to get $7 million this year.)

OK: Say the Twins do move Willingham in July. Who's in line to take the job?

(This speculation is based on the theory that the corner outfield spots to open the season will be manned by Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia with Jason Kubel as the DH.)

One possibility would be that this is the trade that opens a lineup slot for Miguel Sano. Trevor Plouffe moves from third to the outfield, and Sano steps in at third.

A non-Sano possibility — or a non-Plouffe one — would have Chris Parmelee or Chris Colabello gaining playing time, Parmelee most likely as an outfielder and Colabello as a DH, with Kubel playing in the field.

And there's Aaron Hicks. He may not open the season in the majors, but in that case he may well be a mid-season callup.

There's also the possibility that Byron Buxton will pull a Mike Trout and so dominate Double A that the Twins feel compelled to bring him to the bigs ahead of their preferred schedule.

All this, of course, assumes that Willingham is productive enough that somebody else will want him for the stretch drive. That's not guaranteed.

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