Twins could trade Willingham, Morneau if team sputters early

Outfielder Josh Willingham could be available in a trade if the Twins get off to a slow start again. He hit 35 homers and had 110 RBI last season, but the Twins still lost 96 games.

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The best-case scenario for the Twins is that General Manager Terry Ryan will be a buyer at the trade deadline and not a seller.

“There’s a lot of ifs, we all know that,” Ryan said. “We have to have a lot of things go the right way. We’ve have had a pretty nice spring. We’ve added some good guys to the bunch, our health has pretty much held up.”

But Ryan pauses before adding, “We’ve got some question marks.”

And if the Twins don’t answer those questions, then such players as outfielder Josh Willingham and first baseman Justin Morneau could land with other teams.

Ryan spent the offseason trying to address the club’s largest need: starting pitching. He’s about to find out whether adding Mike Pelfrey, Vance Worley and Kevin Correia — plus developing Scott Diamond, Liam Hendriks, Kyle Gibson and others — is enough to make the team competitive.

It’s hard to go into this season expecting the Twins to have the horses to stay in the race. The American League Central appears to have gotten stronger. Some betting lines have the Twins’ over/under for wins at 64½ this season. That’s in between the 96 losses they suffered last season and the 99 in 2011.

All indications are that Ryan will be fielding calls from GMs wondering about his players. Last year, the Twins ended up dealing lefthander Francisco Liriano to the White Sox for Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez and third baseman Danny Valencia to the Red Sox for outfielder Jeremias Pineda.

The two most tradeable Twins will be Willingham and Morneau. Willingham hit 35 homers and drove in 110 runs last season and is in the middle of an affordable three-year, $21 million contract. If Willingham stays healthy and keeps hitting homers, then the Twins could fetch a decent return for the veteran masher.

Teams called about Willingham last season, but the Twins weren’t ready to deal him. They also checked in on Morneau, but he wasn’t a high priority because there were concerns about his health coming off concussion problems and surgeries. Plus, .287 with 19 homers and 77 RBI aren’t eye-popping numbers. But if Morneau gets off to a hot start, he could be coveted.

If Morneau plays well, the Twins could sign him to an extension. He is in the final year of a six-year, $80 million deal. They also could offer him a one-year qualifying offer so they can receive a draft pick as compensation if he signs elsewhere. If the Twins have a chance to win, Morneau prefers to stay.

If the Twins are in the middle of a third consecutive 90-loss season, Morneau and others could be headed elsewhere as the club enters what it hopes will be a quick rebuilding project.

“We are trying to be realistic here and make good baseball decisions for the present and the future,” Ryan said.

“We got pushed in the wrong direction last year.”

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