The Twins had a problem. Target Field had been open only a year, and already people were saying its dimensions were a mistake, that it was too big. Minnesota had hit 96 home runs in the Metrodome in 2009, but that total plummeted to 52 in Target Field’s first season, ranking 28th in the majors.
What to do? Bring in the fences? Mar the new park with ugly construction and jerry-rigged home run rules?
It took a couple of years, but the Twins finally found a better solution: They signed Josh Willingham.
“People said you couldn’t hit home runs in our ballpark,” General Manager Terry Ryan crows about the most expensive — and so far, most successful — free agent in Minnesota Twins history. “Well, I think Josh proved that the problem wasn’t the park. Target Field fits him very well.”
Sure seems like it. Willingham, a humble slugger who still lives in his hometown of Florence, Ala., bashed 21 home runs over the left field and left-center walls in downtown Minneapolis, most of anyone in the ballpark’s three seasons. And now he feels even more comfortable.
“I like hitting there. Everyone likes hitting at home, but I see the ball very well there,” Willingham said. “The outfield is big, but down the line, if you hit it good, it goes.”
Willingham is entering the second season of his three-year contract, and at $7 million per year he’s already an enormous bargain. The Twins knew they were acquiring a powerful hitter with a decent eye at the plate. They didn’t realize they were signing a latter-day Killebrew.
That’s what his numbers added up to, though. Willingham walloped 35 home runs in a Minnesota uniform last year, and only Harmon Killebrew ever managed more. Admittedly, the Hall of Famer eclipsed that number eight different times, but for a power-starved franchise like the Twins, it was as if Babe Ruth had come back to life.
Question now is, can Willingham repeat his career season? The left fielder, who originally came to the big leagues as a catcher for the Marlins, turned 34 in February, an age that usually signals a decline for power hitters.
“We’ve seen no sign of any change in him. His bat is as fast as ever,” Ryan said. “Josh is a professional hitter. We’ve seen how he works at his craft. I don’t know if he will match his numbers from last year, because they were pretty good — 35 home runs, 110 RBIs. But I’ll bet he’s pretty close.”
If he is, Willingham said, it might not be entirely his own doing. “I’m really in just about the perfect situation you can be in a lineup,” as a righthander normally sandwiched between two feared lefthanders. “A lot of guys can have pretty good years hitting between Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. You see a lot of good pitches with men on base.”
And if you’re Josh Willingham, you send them far into the stratosphere, toward those not-distant-at-all Target Field fences.