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Josh Willingham: the Newest Twin


As Eric Pleiss told you yesterday, the Twins have apparently reached an agreement with Josh Willingham. No official announcement has been made by the Twins, but the rumor mill says this is a d0ne deal. The former Oakland slugger will likely man right field for Minnesota in 2012. In 2011, he hit .246/.332/.477 with 29 homers.

The terms of Willingham’s contract were not available as of the time of this writing, but he is expected to receive something not far from the 3 year, $24 million deal the Twins reportedly offered Cuddyer [UPDATE: the deal is rumored to be for three years and $21 million]. If so, that would shatter the record for the biggest contract the Twins have ever written for a free agent (not counting players already on the team who were re-signed). Based on my unscientific search of Baseball Reference salary data, the highest single year salary the Twins have ever signed a free agent for was the $5 million they offered to Livan Hernandez in 2008. The fact that this deal pushes Hernandez permanently out of the team’s record books means it’s already a good move, because I hate remembering that he was on the team.

Even if you adjust for inflation, this deal is still probably a record breaker. Jack Morris signed a $3.7 million yearly deal in 1991. That deal comes out to about $5.9 million in modern money.

Will Willingham be worth the money? If you buy Bill James’s projections, it’s close. According to Willingham’s Fangraphs page, James has Willingham hitting .248/.352/.460 with 25 homers next year. Plug the James projections into Wahoo’s on First’s WAR Calculator, and Willingham should have a WAR in the 1.5 range, which translates into a $7.6 million market value. Of course those numbers are just estimates, but it’s fun to play with them. It’s hard to say whether Willingham could maintain that level of production in every season of the contract, but that’s a problem for future seasons.

The best case scenario for Willingham would be some combination of high on-base skills and power. He had a very impressive .389 on-base percentage in 2010 for Washington, so we know the man can get on base when he needs to. And power hasn’t been a problem for Willingham either. He has topped 20 homers in a season four times. In fact, he’s never had a season of more than 500 plate appearances where he didn’t hit at least 21 longballs.

Some may question Willingham’s ability to maintain those power numbers in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Target Field. To those folks I would like to point out that Oakland’s Alameda County Coliseum is not an easy place to hit a home run either. There were 1.56 homers per game at Target Field last year, compared to 1.35 per game in Oakland. Parker Hageman of Over the Baggy noted about a month ago that Willingham’s home runs tend to come off balls pulled down the left field line, and that those types of homers should still be hittable at Target. Thus, there’s no reason to expect a major power drought from Willingham, unless it’s caused by the natural effects of age (like Cuddyer, Willingham will be 33 next season).

I wrote this weekend that Willingham was basically the same player as Micheal Cuddyer age and stat-wise, and that the only tangible difference between the two is that Cuddyer would gift the team with two high picks if he left. For this reason, I am very glad the Twins made the right baseball decision. Even if Willingham does not help the Twins improve in 2012, the two draft picks could be very useful in the team’s rebuilding effort.

Adding Willingham puts the Twins 2012 payroll right near the arbitrary $100 million amount that Terry Ryan said might be a target. It is entirely possible that Ryan was not entirely serious about that number. Still, the team probably has less than $10 million remaining if it plans to lower payroll from the 2011 level. Given that there is still a serious need for a starting pitcher and bullpen help, outfielders Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are almost guaranteed not to come back.

It won’t be fun to see Kubel and Cuddyer go, but the Willingham signing is a good move overall. Motor City Bengals, Fansided’s Detroit Tiger site, called the Willingham signing a “brilliant lateral move,” and I think that’s an adequate description. Terry Ryan made the right choice here.

It doesn’t quite make up for the Matt Capps re-signing, but it’s a step in the right direction.