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Josh Willingham: Right on Target in Minnesota

This time last year, as the baseball world converged on Dallas, the Twins were looking hard at re-signing Michael Cuddyer to be their right fielder in perpetuity. While it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to see Cuddyer back with the organization as a coach someday, the Twins lost out to the Rockies in the bid for Cuddyer’s services for the next few seasons, which left them with a hole in right field for the first time since Target Field opened. He didn’t replace Cuddyer defensively, but Josh Willingham was brought in to replace him in the order at a fraction of the price, which he did with production to spare.

Cuddyer cost the Rockies $10.5 million last year and hit just .260/.317/.489 with 16 home runs in the majors’ most hitter-friendly park. It was his worst season offensively since 2008. Willingham, on the other hand, made just $7 million for his .260/.366/.524 season that included 35 home runs in a park that tends to suppress them. It was Willingham’s best season both offensively and holistically. Willingham was worth nearly $18 million last year, meaning he’ll need to give the Twins just a hair more than one win over the remaining two years on his deal to have overproduced what he’s being paid.

Certainly the Twins would love to see Willingham continue to rake, as would fantasy owners, and Target Field actually isn’t a bad place for him to do just that. He hit 21 of his 35 homers in Minnesota, and 24 of the 35 total bombs were pulled to left field without a single homer leaving to the opposite field. For lefties like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, their home park is about as bad a park as exists in baseball with respect to home runs; Target Field suppresses lefty home runs to the tune of a 73 park factor, while righties actually get a boost from the park with a home run park factor of 103. Willingham’s success wasn’t a home-field mirage, he hit a third of his homers on the road and while Target Field plays slightly right-handed-hitter friendly, it still lags far behind parks like US Cellular Field for hitter friendliness.

Betting on someone having a career year at age 33 isn’t the worst bet one can make; it isn’t common, but Willingham wasn’t the only 30-something to do it. Aramis Ramirez and A.J. Pierzynski also posted their highest ever wRC+ in 2012 despite being on the wrong side of the age-27 theoretical peak. Betting on any given player to do it in back-to-back seasons feels like a much tougher ask.

Lance Berkman was last year’s best hitter age-33 or older and injuries ruined his 2012. Carlos Beltran lost 27 points of wRC+ and Michael Young collapsed completely. David Ortiz was in the midst of a strong follow up to his 2011 season, but was done in by injuries like Berkman. Of the five best hitters over 33 in 2011, only Ramirez actually posted a better season in 2012. None of this has any direct impact on whether or not Willingham will hit well again next year, but I would rank four of those five hitters — all of them except Young — as better than Willingham and just one of them could string together back-to-back outstanding seasons.

Worth noting is the fact that three of them, Ortiz, Beltran, and Ramirez, were still productive enough to be worth rostering even if they were worse than they were in 2011. Value is a relative measure in fantasy; I think Willingham will be worth rostering in 2012, but there’s a very good chance that at least one person per draft is going to grab him irresponsibly early. Don’t be that guy. I expect some regression in his HR/FB rate, but I don’t think it’ll cost him too many homers; he isn’t primed for a complete collapse or anything so dire as that.

Also worth noting is that health is going to play a big role in Willingham’s ability to repeat his 2012 numbers. Berkman and Ortiz didn’t play their way into obscurity, they simply couldn’t stay on the field. Willingham, too, has had issues staying in the lineup in the past. His back is probably the most worrisome area for his chronic soreness and while the Twins’ medical team did a tremendous job with Jim Thome’s cranky back, there will be a new staff in place this season. If past history is any indication, a third consecutive relatively healthy season from Willingham is actually less likely than him missing a month or more.

Keeper league players are in much the same position as Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, weighing whether to deal Willingham now or hope against the odds that last season can be repeated for the right hander. Chances are that he’s a low-cost option and that other owners are equally unsure of how to value him after last year, all of which complicates the decision. Willingham is more likely to be Ramirez than he is to be Young, especially if Morneau can give him better protection this season, but he’s probably also more likely to be Ortiz than he is to be either of the other two. I’d be shopping him quietly to gauge a specific owner’s interest rather than just throwing him on the block, but if you can trigger a bidding war, so much the better. For redraft players, it’s too early to give concrete advice about Willingham. Once the mock drafts start coming out, it’ll be much clearer how the public at large is going to view his anomalous season.