Anytime a player in the twilight of his career announces that he'd like to stick with his current team until he retires, the motive is, and should, be questioned. In the case of Josh Willingham, we have a guy who is coming off of an injury-plagued age-34 season, with one more year on his contract while playing for a bad team. Does the guy really love the state and the team so much that he's willing to stick with them as things start to turn around, or is he just massaging his relationship with the organization with the hope of playing (and getting paid) for as long as possible?
It's a scenario that plays itself out numerous times every year, and each player will have their own motives. For Willingham, who seems like a good guy and teammate, his reality will fall between the two extremes. It's not a sin to pair personal and professional motives, and besides, the important question should be: is signing Willingham to an extension the best thing to do?
Willingham will play his age-35 season in 2014, after which he will become a free agent. According to his agent's conversation with Mike Berardino, the slugger wants to play through 2017 provided he's healthy. That would mean another three-year deal, which would take Willingham through his age-38 season.
Baseball Reference has three "similarity score" lists, measuring a player against 1) similar batters by full career numbers (aka "Similar Batters", 2) similar partial careers through the player's current age ("Similar Batters by Age"), and 3) similar batters each individual year by the player's age ("Most Similar by Age*). Because we're looking forward to see what could come next for Josh, we'll work with list number two.
Below is a list of the ten players Baseball Reference believes have had the most similar careers through their age-34 seasons, as well as a quick overview of the next four years of that player's career.
Jayson Werth - Washington actually traded Willingham 11 days after signing Werth. This is a hard one to compare, because Werth, like Willingham, just finished his age-34 season. No help looking into the future here, although comparing their numbers since 2007 is interesting. (Willingham '07-'13 | Werth '07-'13)
Glenallen Hill - Hill played just two more years after his age-34 season, including a very good 2000 campaign and then the fallout in 2001 when he played just 16 games and never set foot on a Major League diamond again. Not very encouraging if we're talking about an extension for Willingham, although I still think he can be an impact bat in his age-35 season - like Hill.
Trot Nixon - His age-34 season was his last. He doesn't seem like a good comp here, because his last "typical" season came in his age-31 season. In his age-32 season the power fell off, and the last two years everything else fell off, too. Josh is coming off of just one bad season.
Phil Nevin - Productive for a handful of seasons, Nevin's age-34 campaign saw his production tail off significantly. During his age-35 season he was dealt to the Twins from the Cubs in August, and it was effectively the end of his career. A fairly decent comp for Willingham, with not a very promising look forward.
Ryan Ludwick - Ludwick also doesn't seem to be a good comparison overall, in some part because he's also just coming out of his age-34 season but also because he's only had two of what I'd call "good" years.
Raul Ibanez - It took Willingham a couple of years to catch on in Miami, but it took Ibanez five years and a new team. His age-34 season was just his sixth as a full-time player, and it was a good one. In the subsequent seven years he's averaged 143 games and a .268/.332/.473 triple slash. It's an optimistic future for Willingham, and considering their histories and body types it's easy to make caveats. Ibanez is an extreme example of how good a player can be and how long he can play for, following his age-34 campaign.
Henry Rodriguez - For fives years in the late 90s, Rodriguez was a masher. But he'd fallen off a cliff by age-33, and his age-34 season was his last.
Jim Lemon - Lemon was a big bat for the Senators when they moved to Minnesota, but while he moved with the team he didn't bring his bat. He limped through two-and-a-half seasons, made pit stops in two other cities, and was done. His last productive season came in his age-32 year.
Pete Incaviglia - An all-power corner outfielder whose productive career was done by the time he was 30, he somehow hung on to combine for 20 games in his age-34 season between Detroit and Houston.
Kevin Youkilis - In his prime, Youkilis was a more complete and dangerous hitter than Willingham, but he, too, just completed his age-34 season and it was probably his last. His age-31 season was his last good one, and his age-32 season was his last competent one. A shell of his former self for the last two summers, Youkilis' career should be over.
It's easy to say that most of those guys aren't good comparisons, but that also misses the point. Perhaps what we should be noting is how incredibly unlikely it is that a power-hitting player can continue being productive into his late-30s. Out of ten players, only Ibanez gives an optimistic view. Maybe guys like Werth and Willingham can buck the trend, but it's not likely.
None of that means a player shouldn't be examined on his own merits. Willingham is his own case, and if he's healthy and productive in 2014 then an extension is at least worth discussing.
Roster Considerations & Contract Thoughts
Obviously the Twins have a number of young outfielders coming up through the system who will be getting the entirety of the defensive innings, so any consideration for Willingham remaining with the team would preclude a permanent move to designated hitter. After 2014, The Dream would probably be to have Oswaldo Arcia, Byron Buxton, and Aaron Hicks playing left-to-right. For you Torii Hunter lovers out there, dreaming of a reunion in 2015, you'll have to make a choice between him and Willingham because the Twins wouldn't be likely to carry both.
In the scenario where Willingham is healthy and is productive this season, it's feasible that an extension would make sense - but the Twins would still need to protect themselves by exercising some level of restraint. Even if a new contract looks good at the the time (and yes, I much prefer waiting until after the season to working out something now), an incentive-laden contract with options seems to make the most sense. It would allow Willingham to continue playing, and getting paid, provided he's on the field and hitting; if he was not, then the financial and roster responsibilities wouldn't be restricting.
Are there any circumstances under which you'd be willing to sign Willingham following 2014? Or are you dead-set on moving on and having the Twins get younger?