On Dec. 15, 2011, the Minnesota Twins agreed to sign Josh Willingham to a three-year deal worth $21 million, which at that time made him the largest free agent signing in Twins history.
That milestone was surpassed by both Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes’ contracts this offseason, but still represented a substantial commitment to the aging slugger. A commitment of that size, especially from a small market organization like the Twins, carries with it fairly high expectations. In 2012, Willingham not only met these expectations, but exceeded them, posting career highs in several offensive statistics. In 145 games, Willingham posted a .260/.366/.524 line with 110 RBI, and his 35 home runs were the most by a Twin since Harmon Killebrew hit 41 in 1970.
However, 2013 was a very different story for Willingham. Arthroscopic knee surgery limited the slugger to only 111 games, in which he posted a .208/.342/.368 line, and had only 14 home runs and 48 RBI. Easily his worst season in the MLB, Willingham’s lack of production helped the Twins limp into the offseason with a second straight 66 win season under their belt.
The 2014 season is the last year on Willingham’s current contract, but he has recently noted that he loves playing for Minnesota and would love to come back and finish his career as a Twin. Much of Minnesota’s decision regarding Willingham’s future depends on his performance in 2014. Should the Twins expect him to bounce back this season?
In the nine seasons prior to 2013, Willingham was incredibly consistent at the plate and rarely drifted far from his career line of .256/.359/.471. Year after year, he put up above average numbers, consisting of roughly 20-25 home runs and 80-90 RBI each season. Willingham’s 2013 season can easily be labeled as an outlier and should be chalked up to a hampering knee injury. With an entire offseason to rebuild strength and stamina, expect Willingham to be back to his old ways in 2014.
With a bounce-back campaign in order, Josh Willingham will likely be seeking another three-year deal next offseason, comparable to the one he received in 2011. While his bat should produce a lot more runs this season than it did in the last, I fully expect 2014 to be Willingham’s last as a Twin. If at some point his asking price comes down to one or two years, the likelihood of an extension significantly increases. However, with Byron Buxton chomping at the bit in the minors, I don’t see the Twins offering a long-term extension to a 35-year-old outfielder anytime soon.