I’ve had mostly positive things to say about signing Josh Willingham so far. But there are two (or more) sides to every story. So it’s time to play Devil’s Advocate, which means, of course, that I am going to go work for an evil law firm run by Al Pacino.
Actually, that’s a bad idea. Instead, I’ll play Devil’s Advocate in the figurative sense by presenting the negative side of the Willingham signing, just so we don’t all get our hopes too far up.
The first problem with Willingham is that he’s old (in baseball terms). He’ll be 33 years old when he steps to the plate on Opening Day, and by the time his three year contract is complete, he’ll be almost 36. Very few 36 year old outfielders play at a high level. For a team that just lost 99 games to spend major money on an aging player like Willingham is questionable. If the Twins need to rebuild, they won’t want to have millions tied up in over the hill corner outfielders.
There are some signs that age is a concern for Willingham. Last season in Oakland, he hit for a career low .246 average. And his on-base percentage dropped 67 points to a pedestrian .332. The plummeting on-base skills are a big red flag. Willingham has never been a defensive asset (in fact, he had a terrible -10.2 UZR/150 in 2011), so if he can’t get on base the Twins have essentially wasted their money. Also, he strikes out a lot. He went down on strikes 150 times last season. That was by far a career high, but it was the fourth time he’s whiffed 100 or more times in a year.
Another problem with the length of the contract is that it could impair the development of Minnesota’s younger outfielders. The Twins have Joe Benson, Rene Tosoni, Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia, Trevor Plouffe, Angel Morales, and Ben Revere at various levels of their organization, and all of those young players should be ready to compete for MLB jobs in the next two to three years. If the Twins are still writing big checks to Willingham, it will be harder to justify giving those young players a shot. It might have been more intelligent to sign a player like Coco Crisp to a one year deal and let a youngster take over in 2013.
Finally, look at the opportunity cost of this deal. The money that went to Willingham could have been more wisely spent. The Twins still don’t have any answers for the vacancies in their starting rotation. We’ve heard that Edwin Jackson may be too expensive for the Twins, but he would have been a lot more affordable if the team hadn’t dropped so much money for Willingham.
Jackson aside, the real casualty of this deal was Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer has been an incredibly popular player, and he was arguably the face of the franchise the last two seasons. From his clubhouse magic tricks to his work with the Twins Community Fund to his constant presence in pre and post-game interviews, Cuddyer was the most charismatic and likeable personality on the team. Signing Willingham all but pushed him out. Yes, there are rumblings that the Twins might sign Cuddyer even after adding Willingham, but that leads to an even worse scenario where both corner outfield positions are manned by expensive, aging players who have terrible range.
Okay, I think that sums up the anti-Willingham argument. If you can think of any more negatives, please feel free to list them in the comment section. For the record, I think that the positives of the Willingham deal outweigh the negatives I listed above, but I wanted to write this post to show that there are two sides of the coin. Also, if Willingham turns out to be a bust, I can link back to this and say “I told you so,” because I’m a smug jerk.