Ron Swanson would be proud. On Thursday, the Twins and GM Terry Ryan helped themselves to a heaping plate of amenable bacon, officially inking outfielder Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million deal. The deal, which includes a plate appearance-based incentive in 2014 ($1 million for 525 PA in ’13), was announced after Willingham passed what pretty much amounted to a two-day physical in Minneapolis.
As Chris Cwik noted yesterday, the Twins did well to ink Willingham and — despite the club’s latest insistence that this doesn’t disqualify it from the Cuddyer race — choose to pocket whatever two draft choices come on the heels of Michael signing elsewhere. This is excellent news for a club whose farm system is starting to see some of the luster rub off after back-to-back miserable campaigns for Triple-A Rochester. No, those picks wouldn’t go directly to Rochester of course, but building a better system from the ground up should be the modus operandi for a club coming off its first 90-loss campaign since 2000, and worst season record-wise since 1982.
In many ways, Willingham is a much better fit for the Twins. For one, Willingham accepted an offer that was $1 million per season less than the reported offer that is still allegedly on the table for Cuddyer, who appears to be seeking around $30 million in a three-year deal, or perhaps a guaranteed fourth year. This savings shouldn’t be understated, as it was expressed at Bill Smith’s dismissal press conference that the Twins may be up against a tighter budget than in 2011. Fixing an offense that sputtered to a .295 wOBA (down from .334 in 2010) on a more fixed income was destined not to be easy, but with the additions of Willingham, Jamey Carroll, and Ryan Doumit, TR would appear to be on the right track.
Additionally, since the emergence of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau nearly a decade ago, the Twins’ lineup has long been lefty-heavy. And while Willingham replacing Cuddyer isn’t exactly re-inventing the wheel in that respect, Willingham brings a much more balanced approach to this much-improved Twins attack. Willingham’s OPS splits versus righties and lefties (.827/.862) are far less disparate than Cuddyer’s (.760/.869). Certainly Willingham doesn’t have the positional flexibility that Cuddyer could boast, but Cuddyer didn’t exactly field adeptly at any of the spots anyway. It’s also possibly worth noting that the long-time third musketeer to Mauer and Morneau, Jason Kubel, made it known recently that the Twins were likely no longer in the running for his services, according to Pioneer Press Twins beat writer John Shipley. That takes another left-handed hitter out of the mix.
Just as Willingham is a good fit for the Twins, Target Field may be a better fit for him, too. According to StatCorner, Target Field suppressed home runs by five percent in 2011, whereas O.co Coliseum carried an astonishing 20% suppression rate. Given that Willingham distributed his dongs relatively equally last season (15 home-14 away), there’s a fairly good chance that he could cross the 30 home run plateau for the first time in his career. Only one Twin, Cuddyer, had even 20 home runs last season on a Twins club that only popped 103. Adding Willingham should only help an offense that was last or second-to-last in the AL in runs scored, home runs, OPS, OPS+, and total bases, and well below league-average in pretty much everything else in 2011.
What will be interesting to note will be what outfield arrangement the Twins employ in 2012. Willingham noted on a call with KSTP’s Chris Long that he figured he’d play some left field and some right field. The most sabermetric-friendly layout that would exist would likely be Ben Revere–Denard Span-Willingham, especially since Revere and Span are real go-getters when it comes to fly balls, and the Twins pitching staff is likely to induce just as many bird chasers this season as it has in years past, even without Kevin Slowey in the mix. Another saber-friendly layout would be to go with Willingham-Revere-Span, though manager Ron Gardenhire typically keeps veterans in one spot while shuttling the younger players around. A final layout, and this one seems less likely, would include some mix of Doumit and Trevor Plouffe in right field. Nonetheless, this is a Twins team with much more depth than the one that nearly dropped 100 games while employing players such as Brian Dinkelman, Rene Tosoni, and STEVE HOLM!
Let me be the first to say it: Health willing, it will be a great disappointment if this Twins team doesn’t contend for the AL Central title.
Other required Willingham reading:
*Parker Hageman of TwinsCentric/Over the Baggy explains how Willingham and Twins were match made in heaven.
*Jeff Zimmerman of RotoGraphs explains Willingham’s philosophical shift.
**Thanks to Eno Sarris on the StatCorner tip.
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