FORT MYERS, FLA. – Josh Willingham’s eventual departure makes for the easiest story in camp.
He’s a 35-year-old outfielder who lacks range, is in the last year of his contract, is coming off a season ruined by injury, is making more this year than all but three players on the Twins roster, is already with his fourth team, and eventually will be challenged by a talented group of younger, cheaper, more athletic outfielders.
The Twins could trade him at any time. They could keep him through the end of the year and let him leave in free agency.
Willingham leaving makes historical sense, given the Twins’ reliance on young, affordable players and their habit of trading outfielders for pitching prospects, but that’s not the only possibility. It might not even be the most likely.
If Willingham performs well and is reasonable if and when the Twins approach him about a contract extension, he could become a part of the team’s grand plans.
On Wednesday, Willingham arrived in camp looking like a block of marble with Popeye forearms attached.
The Alabama native said that he would love to extend his stay with the Twins and that he and his family enjoy the organization, the city, the mild summer and his teammates. “I do love playing in Minnesota,” he said.
Here’s why he might get the chance to sign a new deal:
• Willingham offers a unique skill: the ability to hit home runs at Target Field. He hit 35 of them in 2012. No other Twin has hit more than 25 home runs in a season since the team moved into its new ballpark.
• In the age of steroid testing, power has become harder to find. Willingham might be the most affordable proven slugger available.
• He might be the kind of player who doesn’t chase the extra dollar. He could have signed with the Seattle Mariners for more than the Twins offered, yet he chose the Twins — according to people with knowledge of the process — in part because playing in Minnesota meant a shorter flight to Alabama.
• The Twins’ ideal future outfield would include Byron Buxton in center, Aaron Hicks in left and Oswaldo Arcia in right. Even if all three become everyday players, the position of designated hitter would be open.
Imagine this lineup: Hicks, Buxton, Joe Mauer, Miguel Sano, Arcia, Willingham, Eddie Rosario or Brian Dozier, Josmil Pinto, and Daniel Santana. At the moment, the Twins field one of the worst lineups in baseball. Within a year or two, with help from Willingham, they could field one of the best.
• The Twins farm system is stocked with good young arms. They will always value young pitching, but they no longer feel desperate to trade for pitching depth.
• Willingham is liked and respected in the clubhouse and by the front office.
Last year, Willingham injured his right knee. He underwent surgery, but never looked like himself, finishing with a .208 batting average, 14 homers and 48 RBI in 111 games — aberrant numbers for a player coming off the two best seasons of his career.
“I can’t use that as an excuse,” Willingham said.
The Twins haven’t won 70 games with Willingham on the roster. Why does he like playing for a losing team?
“There’s something to be said about relationships,” he said. “Obviously, I have a family — three kids — they love it here. I think that’s important. From the owner all the way down, I love the people and my teammates.
“They’re not so far removed from winning. They won in 2010, right? They’ve got the same coaching staff here pretty much. A lot of people who are here know how to win, and they know how to put a winning team on the field.
“You have to trust that. This offseason they put a lot of pieces together that we didn’t have last year, in terms of pitching. When you play in the big leagues and play in our division and you’re facing, let’s say, the Tigers, and they’re throwing three or four front-line pitchers at you, you’ve got to be able to win a 2-1 game once in a while, or 3-2. I don’t think we’ve been equipped to do that over the last couple of years.”
Willingham regaining his form would dramatically improve this year’s lineup, and it might make him a fixture in future lineups.