Rightfully so, the big story from the Twins 6-4 win in Cleveland was Liam Hendriks. The right-hander won his first big league game in his 18th big league start. It was a tremendous moment for the Australian.
However, it was also a huge night for another Twins player. He went 4-5 with a home run and four RBI. He had two RBI singles, and the home run came with a runner on.
It’s been a huge season for the powerful outfielder. After last night, he now has career-highs with 35 home runs and 110 RBI. If he plays in just four of the final 14 Twins games, he will play in the most games he has played in. Being able to DH at times certainly helped keep his bat in the lineup. Manager Ron Gardenhire has done a terrific job of giving him occasional days off to help keep him healthy and strong.
Here are the single-season home run leaders in the Twins 52-season history:
The relationship between Willingham and the Twins seems to align perfectly. When Terry Ryan let Michael Cuddyer go to Colorado for 3 years and $31.5 million, some Twins fans were upset. When the Twins signed Willingham for 3 years and $21 million days later, Twins fans had mixed emotions. Cuddyer was the face that Twins fans saw most, and he was most often the voice of the Twins players, always willing to talk after games, good or bad. Stat-heads continued to write that the Twins got the better player for $10.5 million less. There is no question, not only was Willingham the Twins biggest free agent signing in their history, he clearly has been the Twins best free agent signing.
Last month, Willingham let it be known that he would be open to talking to the Twins about signing an extension. He is owned $7 million in 2013 and $7 million in 2014. If Willingham were a free agent following the 2012 season, what would he get in the free agent market? Despite the fact the he will turn 34 years old about the time spring training starts next February, he would most likely get a deal in the three year, $30 million range. If he were willing to play the 2015 season at $7 million, it would be like signing him to a three year, $21 million contract again.
The Twins have long had a need for right-handed power in the middle of their lineup. Can Trevor Plouffe take that next step in his career to provide consistent power? Willingham gives the Twins what they have needed for years. Also, unlike many Twins hitters in recent years, he is not intimidated by Target Field.
Fangraphs is a tremendous site for baseball information and statistics. They have a stat called “Value” the takes a look at how players compare to a ‘replacement players’ and based on that, they place a “value” on his season. Right now, Willingham’s 2012 “Value” is placed at $17.5 million (and that factors in his negative defense). He has been consistently valuable since 2006, his first full season.
There are reasons that not adding a year to Willingham’s contract are probably the right thing to do. The Twins do have lots of outfield prospects. Denard Span’s name will likely be remain in trade rumors and Ben Revere has shown he can be a solid big leaguer. Oswaldo Arcia, Aaron Hicks and Joe Benson are all prospects that could be ready as early as sometime in 2013. Many believe that Miguel Sano will be ready by late 2014 or 2015 and could be in the outfield. The other side of that remains that you never know how good prospects will actually be no matter how elite their prospect status.
Harmon Killebrew had all those 40 home runs seasons, but his last home run season was in his age-34 season in 1970. He then hit 28 homers in 1971 and 26 homers in 1972, still good power numbers. Over the final three seasons of his career, he combined to hit 32 more home runs. Of course, that isn’t to say that Willigham’s last great season would be in 2012, but that trajectory of declining numbers certainly is not unusual.
The other angle for not extending Willingham beyond 2014 is that right now his value is likely the highest it would ever be. The Twins are likely a couple of years from competing for another division title, so as much as Willingham is great in the middle of the Twins lineup, he is someone that the Twins could get a very nice player/prospect return from in a trade.
Willingham is right in making his request to add another year to stay with the Twins known. As a Twins fan, I want to hear that. It is wise for the Twins to let 2013 play out before considering extending Willingham. It will be another year to see how he performs as well as seeing how the prospects progress. Finally, as Twins fans, I think it’s wise just to sit back and marvel at what an incredible season 2012 has been for Josh Willingham, and leave it at that for now!