Wednesday, January 22, 2014

14 Minnesota Twins to Watch in '14: Josh Willingham

Like all fans, I hope the 2014 season is much, much better than the 2011-13 seasons.  However, I am realistic and I understand that the Twins are still in the middle of a rebuilding effort.  I think that a good chunk of that rebuilding has been completed, but the team could use a few more pieces here and there.  The 13th most important player for 2014 is not part of the future.  With a big start in 2014, he could regain his lost trade value and bring the Twins an important asset in July or August.

The 13th most important Twins player in 2014 is Josh Willingham.

Who is he? 

You may remember Willingham from his home run party back in 2012.  Or, you may have a shorter memory and you remember his low batting average/strikeout party in 2013.  I was at both parties and I really enjoyed the first one.  Even in his "bad" 2013 season, Willingham still showed the ability to reach base, posting .342 OBP despite a putrid .208 batting average.  The ability to take a walk is nice, but is that all Willingham can do at this point?

Sadly, his trademark power nearly disappeared in 2013.  His home run total plummeted, falling from 35 in 2012 to 14 in 2013.  His slugging percentage cratered from a mighty .524 to a Rivas-esque .368.  He even lost doubles, going from 30 to 20.  Some of the counting stats fell as a result of a knee injury that stole nearly two months from Willingham's season.  The slugging percentage plunge is harder to explain.  His BABIP and home run to fly ball ratios dipped as well, so perhaps some of his struggles were luck-related.  Of course, he'll be 35 when the season starts, so he could be showing signs of his age. 

It wouldn't be civil to discuss his defense in mixed company.  Let's just say that his best position should be one where he is designated to hit.    

Why is he important?

Willingham is important for two reasons.  First, if the Twins actually want to have a good 2014 season, they will need production from one of their more talented hitters.  Even in his down 2013 season, he still managed a 98 OPS+.  Only Joe Mauer, Oswaldo Arcia and Brian Dozier topped that number among returning regulars.  Arcia and Dozier barely cleared that number.  You can still make a decent case that Willingham is the Twins' second-best offensive player.  If he continues to trend downward, the Twins offense could be brutal.

Second, Willingham is still signed to a reasonable contract.  According to FanGraphs, Willingham was worth $16 million in 2012 and zero dollars in 2013.  That averages out to $8 million per year.  Math!  If Willingham can even be somewhere in the middle of those two seasons, he would be worth the $7 million that he'll make in 2014.  Come July/August, the Twins could look to unload a productive Willingham for a decent prospect.  If he's an unproductive Willingham, the Twins could be looking at a trade more in the Delmon Young vein.  If you remember, the Twins received a pretty mediocre reliever (Lester Oliveros) for Young.  

Willingham has been much better than Young in his career, but he's a lot older and could be going the wrong way.  Let's hope a good season is coming. 

Paul the Positive Puma's Take:

Perhaps I have rose-colored glasses on, but I think Willingham is going to have a huge season in 2014.  Between 2006 and 2012, Willingham posted a 125 OPS+.  When he played 130 or more games, he was good for 25+ home runs.  He was on base 36% of the time.  I find it hard to believe that he just fell off a cliff at 34 last season.  34 isn't young, but I don't consider it to be "old" or washed up either. 

I think a lot of Willingham's struggles came from his knee injury (which he returned from pretty quickly considering the severity) and some wrist issues he had early in the season.  As was pointed out earlier, a couple of major luck stats were lower than his career average.  I'm not sure Willingham will be as good as he was in 2012, but I do expect a good bounce-back campaign.  I'll guess 25 home runs, .475 slugging and a .360 OBP.  I also predict he'll finish his contract as a member of the Twins.    

Peter the Pessimistic Puma's Take:

This is typical Twins.  They finally make a smart move and then they blow it by being complacent.  I'll give the Twins credit, they signed Willingham to a fair (not outstanding) contract and then got great value from him in 2012.  Then, they screwed up by holding on to Willingham instead of trading him at peak value.  He had his best season as a pro in 2012 and I saw a regression in 2013 coming a mile away.  Even I didn't expect what I saw in 2013. 

On July 28, 2012, Willingham hit his 27th home run.  He's hit 22 since.  At the end of July, Willingham was hitting .272/.385/.566.  He was 33 years old and signed to a very reasonable contract.  Now, he's coming off a .208/.342/.368 season.  He's 35, he's got a balky knee, he's a poor defensive outfielder and he's a free agent after the season.  What team is going to want an old, powerless DH with a bad knee who might be available on a cheaper one-year deal the following season?  Freaking Twins.

What to look for in '14:

Were Willingham's struggles in 2013 due to his age, his injuries, a fluke, vampires, or something else?  Whatever caused his poor performance in 2013, the Twins have to hope that he approaches his 2012 performance in 2014.  If Willingham can return to the 125 OPS+ that he had averaged for the previous 7 seasons, the offense will be much better than it was last season and Willingham just might recoup some of the trade value he lost last season.  I'll be keeping a close eye on his April performance.  If he can continue to take walks and crush extra-base hits, his 2013 season will be long forgotten.  If he can't, his 2012 season will feel like it happened in 1912. 

I'll be back next week with the 12th most important Twins player in 2014.  Have a nice day, everyone!

If you haven't been paying close attention, I'm counting down the 14 most important Twins players for the 2014 season.  This was just one part in a 14-part series.  If you missed any of the previous installments, just click here as I have put them all in one nice, tidy location for you.  I'm the best.


  1. I tend to agree more with Peter the Pessimistic Puma...

    Also, no byline in this article? Your last one was hilarious!!

    1. Sadly, I think Pete's perspective might be a bit more accurate too. I'm glad you enjoy the by-lines. I'll have some in the future!