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Analysis: Time for Twins to trade away

By Joe Christensen, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –

MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins have terrible timing these days, and that’s not a reference to the batter’s box. The front office keeps making trades from a position of weakness instead of strength.

J.J. Hardy for Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson. Delmon Young for Lester Oliveros and Cole Nelson. And now, Francisco Liriano for two White Sox prospects who, in a best-case scenario, will become the next Nick Punto and Brian Duensing.

With the non-waiver trade deadline coming at 3 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, the Twins need a better crystal ball.

In Liriano’s case, General Manager Terry Ryan actually did well under the circumstances. Liriano is two months from free agency and was 0-5 with a 9.45 ERA in early May.

When he makes his White Sox debut against the Twins on Tuesday at Target Field, Liriano could pitch eight shutout innings with 16 strikeouts. He also could be showering by the third.

The Twins should have seen this coming. Actually, some did see it coming. After the 2010 season, there were people inside the organization who felt strongly that Liriano should be traded.

The lefthander had finally started fulfilling the promise he showed as a rookie in 2006, before Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. He went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA and 201 strikeouts in 2010. He was two full seasons from free agency.

Insiders say the Twins and Blue Jays discussed a deal that would have swapped Liriano for lefthander Ricky Romero. The Yankees offered righthander Ivan Nova and infielder Eduardo Nunez. Some Twins officials would have been happy with either move, knowing Liriano’s potential to hit rock bottom again.

Then-GM Bill Smith didn’t pull the trigger, and last year, with his shoulder barking, Liriano went 9-10 with a 5.09 ERA. Considering how badly he struggled in the first two months of this season, the return package from the White Sox wasn’t terrible.

Eduardo Escobar was a major league utility player before the trade and could become a starting shortstop, pushing Brian Dozier to second base. And left­hander Pedro Hernandez could become a serviceable back-of-the-rotation starter.

But fans are understandably disappointed. Twins starting pitchers entered Monday ranking last in the American League with a 5.57 ERA, and there is very little help coming from the top three levels of their farm system.

The Twins could have avoided this with better foresight. Like Liriano, they miscalculated with Young. After two disappointing seasons, Young finally produced in 2010, batting .298 with 21 homers and 121 RBI. Instead of selling high, the Twins watched him hit four homers and 32 RBI in 84 games before trading him to the Tigers off waivers last August.

Branch Rickey always said you should trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late. In recent times, the Twins have been guilty of both. They were late with Liriano and Young and early with Hardy, Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza.

This trend must stop. The Twins need to decide if they are going to be serious contenders next year — and the answer is probably no — and then start planning accordingly.

Ryan says he will listen to offers for anybody, and teams have asked about Denard Span, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham. All three are under contract for next year, but the Twins need to consider moving all three of them. If not now, then definitely over the offseason.

Maybe it sounds preposterous to trade Willingham now, in the first year of a three-year, $21 million deal, when he has 27 home runs and 78 RBI. But he is 33 years old, and his trade value never will be higher. He dealt with back issues earlier in his career, and it’s always a concern that he will wrench it again on one swing.

Sometimes you have to make unpopular choices. Last winter, Oakland let Willingham leave via free agency and traded away three All-Star pitchers — Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey — but the returns have made the A’s surprising contenders this year.

There aren’t many ways to land front-line starting pitchers, and the Twins have shown very little interest in paying for it on the free-agent market. Trading Willingham might be the only way to get it.

The Twins should consider selling high soon. As they have shown, it doesn’t always pay to wait.

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