Before signing with the Twins earlier this offseason, Josh Willingham was a fairly obscure ball player to many Minnesota fans. He spent the first five years of his professional career playing for the Florida Marlins before being traded to the Washington Nationals. After a brief stop in Washington Willingham was again traded, this time to the American League, where he played a single season for the Oakland Athletics before entering free agency and signing with the Twins. While Willingham only hit .246 in his first year on the Junior Circuit, in part due to a 21% career Strike Out rate, he managed to reach base almost a 1/3 of the time, posting a .332 OBP. While the high strike out totals are a little bit alarming, when Willingham does hit the ball, he hits it hard, resulting in a career .475 slugging percentage (fitting him in between Joe Mauer, .471; and Justin Morneau, .499). While Willingham has never hit for a high average (never hit higher than .277 in a full season), he should benefit from additional familiarity with AL pitchers, and should see a slight rebound in 2012.
Willingham has never played less than 102 games since becoming an everyday player in 2006, and has played more than 133 games in 4 of the past 6 seasons, for a team looking to avoid the disabled list in 2012, Willingham will fit right in. Replacing Michael Cuddyer on the Twins’ roster will not be an easy feat, but at least defensively Willingham should have an advantage if the career left fielder can adapt to the right side of Target Field. Over the past four years, while he hasn’t been great, Willingham has only given up -0.5 dWAR, while over that same time period Cuddyer was worth -3.9. Willingham does not have the same powerful right arm that Cuddyer has, but skill wise, as a corner outfielder, Willingham willbe a little bit better.
Bill James projects Willingham to have a nearly across the board improvement on his 2011 season in Oakland. James expects Willingham to increase his walks, batting average, on base percentage and OPS, along with a decrease strike out numbers. The only place James sees Willingham failing to live up to his 2011 numbers is his slugging, which is down due to a decrease in the number of home runs James expects from the Twins’ new right fielder. Part of that projection, undoubtedly, is the result of 81 games at the spacious Target Field, dropping his projected round-tripper total down to 25, after slugging 29 of them a year ago. While Trevor Plouffe is likely to have an opportunity to play some right field, I expect Willingham to remain healthy in 2012 and play upwards of 145 games, with 135 or more out under the overhang in right field. Like James, I believe that Willingham will have a bigger offensive year in 2012 than he did in 2011 everywhere except home runs, posting 550 at-bats, 24 home runs, 62 walks, 120 strike outs, and a BABIP just a tick under .300 at .298. Plugging all of this into the Simple WAR Calculator returns a 1.7 WAR season for Willingham, which is in line with his two previous years (1.7 in 2010 and 1.8 in 2011). If Willingham can continue to slug as he did in Oakland, if not better, as Parker Hageman wrote shortly after the Twins announced the deal, then his value could be as high as 2.2 WAR, worth just over $11 million dollars.
While Josh Willingham may not end up being the clubhouse leader that Michael Cuddyer was, if he does his job as a ball player he’ll be worth every penny of his 3 year/$21 million dollar deal.