Will Josh Willingham boost Twins' power?

December, 14, 2011
12/14/11
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The Minnesota Twins’ pursuit of Josh Willingham makes sense for them, but does it make sense for him? The Twins need a left fielder to plug into the lineup to replace Delmon Young, and they need right-handed power to replace Young and Michael Cuddyer.

[+] Enlarge Josh Willingham
Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireFormer A's outfielder Josh Willingham slugged 29 home runs last season.
Part of this is a function of their lineup, which rests upon the left-handed bats of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. That’s a fairly fragile proposition at this point, just like the two stars themselves, assuming Morneau ever completes his comeback from post-concussion symptoms. The Twins finished next to last in the AL in runs scored, finishing ahead of only the Mariners. They also finished last in the AL and 29th in the major leagues in Isolated Power -- even with the advantage of a DH.

That in turn is a function of their ballpark. The one team that finished behind the Twins in ISO, the Padres, play in Petco Park, the best pitchers’ venue in the major leagues. But using the 2012 edition of the irreplaceable "Bill James Handbook," you’ll see that the Twins’ Target Field indexes worse than any other in park factor for home runs across the past two years (76, when 100 is average). However, with just two years in existence, Target Field’s numbers have already bounced around a bit; last year, it rated 104 for right-handed hitters’ homers. That’s far from the biggest boosts via park power: The Yankees’ short-porch in right field indexes at 143 across three years and the White Sox’s equally short porch in left indexes at 138. But in a park that slightly favors pitchers (95 over two years), that looks like an exploitable advantage for a Twins team that needs power.

Hence, the addition of Willingham on top of initially signing Ryan Doumit to help provide power at DH, catcher, first base and/or the outfield corners. Coming off a 29-homer season for the A’s in equally pitcher-friendly, power-strangling Oakland Coliseum, Willingham should be an outstanding third wheel and right-handed foil to Mauer and Morneau. But does signing with the Twins make sense for Willingham? We’ll see what the terms will be on what’s already reported to be a multiyear deal -- it’s hard to beat handsome compensation, certainly, especially as a free agent heading into your age-33 season.

But beyond cash, is Minnesota where you want to wind up? Can the Twins contend? Signing Willingham is the latest move in GM Terry Ryan’s speedy bit of retooling. First, he added Jamey Carroll to provide an OBP boost at the top of the order and to play shortstop, then he added Doumit’s flexibility and bat. If this aging crew can complement Mauer and Morneau, with Ben Revere and Denard Span in the outfield, the Twins have what looks to be a contending lineup in a potentially expanded playoff format and a weak division. That’s if everyone stays healthy; if the Tigers come back to the pack, that would also help, but that’s obviously outside of Ryan’s control.

The downside of signing Willingham is what it means for the Twins’ already-ragged defense. After rating negatively as a left fielder in four of the past five years via Total Zone (and three of five via Baseball Info Solutions’ Plus/Minus) putting him in left field doesn’t figure to do Twins pitchers any favors. Adding him on top of the DH-worthy Doumit and Carroll (with his weak range at short) makes it especially hard to sustain the faith in fundamentals that’s supposed to be a Minnesota mantra. But the Twins already rated last in Defensive Efficiency and Baseball Prospectus’ Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency last year, so it wasn’t like they could rank any lower. But they could get worse.

In the end, adding Willingham should help power a much-improved Twins offense -- how could he not? You can appreciate the problem from Ryan’s perspective, because he was already tasked with shoring up an offense. The new problem is whether or not Willingham’s the latest poor addition to what might be a particularly bad defense lined up behind a pitching staff already well known for its pitch-to-contact tendencies. Come the season, it could be a summer of slugfests in the twin cities.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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