Likely Starter: Josh Willingham
2012 Stats: .260/.366/.524, 35 HR, 110 RBI, 85 R
Potential Backups: Darin Mastroianni, Ryan Doumit
Since joining the Minnesota Twins last winter, Josh Willingham has been destroying long-standing conceptions in addition to baseballs.
There was a belief that prominent free agents wouldn’t sign in Minnesota. Yet Willingham, coming off a big season in Oakland, came aboard on a favorable three-year deal that at the time looked like a bargain and now looks like an absolute steal.
There was a belief that right-handed power hitters couldn’t consistently put the ball over the fence in Target Field’s spacious confines. Willingham christened his new home park with homers in three straight games, and ultimately totaled 21 jackjobs on the year at the Bullseye.
There was a belief that Willingham’s historical durability issues made him a poor bet to stay healthy through a full season at age 33. Then he went out and set a career high with 145 games played, avoiding the disabled list for the entirety of the campaign.
Terry Ryan has had a disturbingly high whiff rate on free agent signings, but with Willingham the general manager connected for a long shot into the left field seats. The slugging outfielder was everything the Twins could have hoped for in Year One of his contract, anchoring the cleanup spot through the summer while racking up homers and driving in runs at a fantastic rate. On a better team, he may have collected MVP votes.
Now Willingham comes face to face with another conception: that a player aging into his mid-30s, coming off a career season marked by unprecedented health, will be hard-pressed to replicate the feat.
That is undoubtedly true. Willingham’s first season in a Twins uniform was quite amazing, exceeding anything he’d previously accomplished in his career, and now he’s another year older at 34. But on the bright side, the imposing masher’s value comes more from sheer strength than speed or agility, and that’s not a skill that tends to deteriorate as much with age.
Sure, he’ll probably have a tough time reproducing his numbers from 2012. That is the very nature of a career year. But prior to that season, Willingham had been a remarkably consistent hitter, so the smart money is on another .850 OPS, 25 HR type of season. The Twins will take that in a heartbeat.
If there’s one area we could expect to see Willingham meaningfully decline this year (aside from games played) it would be his defense. That’s a bit worrisome since he’s already had his fair share of adventures in left field. It’d be no surprise if the Twins start plugging him in at DH more and more often over the course of the campaign, favoring younger and more fleet options in their ballpark’s expansive outfield.
This brings us to the position’s depth, which is an interesting subject. At the outset of the season, Darin Mastroianni will likely serve as Willingham’s primary backup, but there are a number of moving parts that could come into play here. Joe Benson and Oswaldo Arcia are both prospects vying to emerge as viable MLB options at some point during the summer. Minor-league veterans Brandon Boggs and Wilkin Ramirez will be on hand. It’s not unthinkable that Trevor Plouffe could be nudged back to a corner outfield spot if he hits but his defense at third isn’t up to snuff.
Any of those players would also be an option in right field, and that may be the more likely destination if Chris Parmelee ends up sliding to first. But, as mentioned above, Ron Gardenhire could become inclined over time to help his contact-heavy pitching staff by replacing Willingham in the field with a superior defender, and of course given his history there’s a good chance the seasoned slugger will be nicked up at some point.
But make no mistake about it: Whether he’s occupying the area on defense or raining line drives with his ferocious pull-heavy swing from the batter’s box, left field belongs to Josh Willingham this year. And after his prodigious performance in that role last season, Twins fans should be willing set their conceptions aside and enjoy the show.