Monday, October 22, 2012

Sell High: Josh Willingham and Target Field

Last off-season, the Twins correctly allowed Michael Cuddyer to leave via free agency, and signed outfielder Josh Willingham to take his place. Willingham was signed for $21MM over 3 years while Cuddyer signed with Colorado for $30MM over 3 years.

Willingham didn't disappoint in his first season as a Twin. He hit .260/.366/.524, adding 35 home runs in 145 games. It was the best season of Willingham's career, but at 33-years-old, it seems unlikely he'll repeat his 2012 season next year.

A career .261/.362/.483 hitter, Willingham has been a solid offensive player for most of his career. A spike in his slugging percentage at such a late age is pretty rare, which is why the Twins should not expect Willingham to hit as well next season as he did this year. Willingham's offensive boost, believe it or not, came from playing more games at Target Field. His home/road splits in 2012 were pretty extreme. Willingham hit a ridiculous and likely unsustainable .293/.407/.610 at Target Field in 2012, compared to just .230/.326/.444 on the road. Why did his numbers spike so much at Target Field? I'm glad you asked. In 2011, Willingham played in Oakland where according to ESPN's park factor stat, the A's scored .947 runs, or about 94% of the runs scored in a neutral park. (Target Field ranked just below Oakland, .944 to .947 last season) In 2012, however, Target Field became much more of a hitter's ballpark. Target Field was the 10th most hitter friendly ballpark in baseball in 2012, after ranking 10th last in 2011. The Twins scored 1.04 runs, or 104% of what would've been scored in a neutral park.

The problem with Willingham's breakout being tied to Target Field becoming a much more hitter friendly park is that there simply isn't enough data yet to know what kind of park Target Field truly is. A look at the numbers since Target Field opened gives us a grand total of 3 years of information. In a league that has kept data for over a century, 3 years is far too small of a number to get a true reading on the park. Park Factor, by year:

2010 - .962 (96% of the runs scored in a neutral park)
2011 - .944
2012 - 1.044

Clearly, the numbers don't paint really any kind of picture. It's been random the first 3 years. However, if Target Field plays like a pitchers park next season, as it has for 2/3 of Target Field's existence, Willingham could see a considerable dip in his power numbers, as suggested.

 He might hit 30 home runs again, and he might hit .260 with a .360 on base percentage. But expecting Willingham's slugging percentage to stay near his 2012 production is simply a wish. In a best-case scenario, which would assume Target Field continues to play as a hitter's park, I'd say Willingham hits around .265/.370/.500, which is very good still. But that's a best-case scenario; a more likely line would be .255/.355/.490 or so, factoring in last season's numbers as well as his career numbers and expected declines with age. If Target Field goes back to a pitcher-friendly park, Willingham's numbers should be worse than they were his final season in Oakland, when he hit .246/.332/.477, again because of park-factors and the fact that he'll be 2 years older than he was in Oakland.

Trying to predict what a player could get in a trade, though, is almost impossible to gauge as an outsider. However, it seems likely that several contending teams would be very interested in adding a veteran outfielder coming off a monster season, especially since the money isn't bad at $14MM over 2 years. Acquiring a solid package of prospects, or even one major league ready starting pitcher, seems possible. So here's to hoping the Twins make Willingham available, and accept the fact that they're going to need to build for a 2014 core if they want to truly get back into the division race. One year quick fixes don't work unless you have a blank check. Trading Willingham when his value is at an all-time high is simple economics, and I'm sure the Twins realize that.

So please, fellow Twins fans, when the team announces in November that they've traded Josh Willingham, don't complain that the team is too cheap. Applaud the move for what it is; selling high on a player who can't possibly duplicate his 2012 season. That's what I'll be doing, at least.