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Willingham's Incredible Season and Free Agent Spending

<em>"Man, just think how many homers I could hit if I got to hit AGAINST my teammates,"</em> Willingham thought. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE
"Man, just think how many homers I could hit if I got to hit AGAINST my teammates," Willingham thought. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

When the Twins made their largest free agent signing in club history this offseason, it didn't create a lot of national waves. That's probably because a three-year, $21M contract isn't really all that much in baseball these days. Twins fans didn't rejoice at the signing, and in fact had some mixed reactions because it signaled the end of Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel in Minneapolis. I don't think anyone was prepared for the type of season Josh Willingham is having with the Twins, though.

Some fun facts about Willingham:

  • Willingham leads the Twins in isolated power (average minus slugging percentage). That's not much of a surprising stat, but it is surprising to note that Willingham also leads all of Major League Baseball following last night's home run. His .295 mark is tops among qualified hitters. Jose Bautista, Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton... all looking up at Willingham.
  • Willingham is on pace for 43 home runs, which would be the most hit by a Twins player since 1969. I don't really need to say who hit 49 homers that year, do I?
  • Fangraphs values Willingham's 2012 performance to date at $17.1M. He's already been worth 3.8 fWAR, and if he continues at this pace he should justify the value of his entire three-year contract at the one-third mark.
  • Willingham is hitting .263/.379/.559 this season. Justin Morneau hit .321/.375/.559 in 2006 when he won the American League MVP. Aside from the batting average, Willingham is having a very similar season. Granted, he has no shot at winning the MVP, but if he hits 43 homers, I imagine he'll garner some votes for the first time in his career.

Terry Ryan has gone on record as saying that he doesn't think free agency is a way to fix a club, and that's a good thing for a general manager to say and believe. Even if the Twins were to raise payroll by $10M or so, there's no way a team with this type of budget should be looking to build its entire roster via free agency. Scouting and development are crucial to sustained success. The other side of that coin, however, is that free agency is certainly a viable way to plug needs if teams can reel in talented players at sensible contracts.

Willingham came into the 2012 season with a three-year average of .257/.360/.479 and 30 homers per 162 games from 2009-2011. His defensive limitations kept him from receiving a larger payday, but the Twins assessed that Willingham wouldn't be too much of a defensive downgrade from Kubel or Cuddyer and that his offensive numbers would be similar. Obviously, we know now that the first half of that equation was correct and the latter half has been blown out of the water.

Hopefully this increases the team's willingness to be players in what's going to be a saturated market for free agent pitchers this offseason. Zack Greinke, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Dempster, Shaun Marcum and Joe Blanton are just some of the names that will be available. Brandon highlighted the match between Blanton and the Twins last week (which I agree with), but given the disaster that has been the rotation this season, the Twins should be open to many avenues.

No, I'm not seriously suggesting that Terry Ryan throw six years and $120M at Zack Greinke, but if there's one thing that Willingham has exemplified, it's that teams don't need to break the bank to deliver premium value on free agency. Throwing a bank vault at Greinke isn't going to fix this team, but allocating some of the roughly $23M** the Twins have coming off the books to bringing some established talent into this rotation would be a good move. Hopefully the initial returns on their largest free agent investment ever make the idea more palatable, because the Twins' rotation ranks dead last with a total of 1.9 fWAR and 28th with a 5.38 ERA.

** = Assumes a non-tender of Alexi Casilla and a buyout of Matt Capps' option. Also includes arbitration raises for Jared Burton and Brian Duensing, plus guaranteed salary increases to Nick Blackburn, Denard Span, Glen Perkins and Jamey Carroll.