MINNEAPOLIS — Josh Willingham followed up his career year by having a pretty good offseason. The Twins outfielder and Alabama native is also a season ticket holder to the University of Alabama football team.
As a result, he secured tickets to the BCS Championship game, which pitted the Crimson Tide against Notre Dame. Willingham and his family made the trip to Miami for the game, which his Alabama squad won in convincing fashion by a 42-14 final.
Willingham also accompanied Wayne “Big Fella” Hattaway, a longtime Twins employee, current clubhouse attendant and fellow Alabaman, to his first-ever Crimson Tide game.
“That’s a whole different story,” Willingham quipped. “You could write, like, three articles about that.”
Now that Willingham is done watching his favorite college football reach the pinnacle of its sport, he’s hoping to bring the Twins one step closer to a similar goal in baseball. Minnesota endured a 96-loss season last year, which was Willingham’s first with the team. The 33-year-old Willingham was the best offensive player on that team, belting team highs in home runs (35) and RBI (110). Both of those were career highs for Willingham in his nine seasons in the majors.
Now entering his 10th year in the league, is there any reason to believe Willingham can’t put up similar numbers for the Twins in 2013?
“I don’t see any reason why he can’t come close to duplicating, now that he’s familiar with the environment up here and certainly the staff and the ballpark and everything that involves a major move coming form Oakland,” said Twins general manager Terry Ryan. “He’s a solid guy. I don’t think you’re going to see much waver out of his performance.”
Of course, staying on the field will be key for Willingham. As he put up career highs in offensive numbers, he also did so in the number of games he played (145).
“You have to be able to be on the field to do it,” Willingham said. “Just try and get into a rhythm, try and get comfortable and play every day. I think if that happens, I’ll put up good numbers. I don’t know if they’ll be that good, but they should be productive.”
Willingham signed with Minnesota as a free agent last offseason after spending just one season with Oakland. He also spent two seasons in Washington and five with Florida before that. Willingham joined a Twins team that plays in pitcher-friendly Target Field, but the right-handed slugger made the park seem small.
In fact, 21 of Willingham’s 35 homers came at Target Field. Most of those were pulled to left field or left-center.
“I loved hitting there,” Willingham said. “Obviously the park’s big, but I feel like if I hit it well, I can hit it out.”
While pitching was a problem for Minnesota last year and remains a big question mark entering 2013, the Twins’ lineup should be able to score some runs, thanks to the likes of Willingham and Co. Minnesota scored 701 runs, third-most in the division, but their pitching staff gave up an American League high 832 runs.
Most of Willingham’s at-bats in 2012 came as the Twins’ cleanup hitter between catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau. Of course, Minnesota lost its Nos. 1 and 2 hitters in the lineup in Denard Span and Ben Revere, who helped set the table for Willingham. Finding guys to replace them and get on base ahead of Mauer, Willingham and Morneau will be key.
“The meat of our order’s back. I think you’ll see a healthier Justin, obviously,” Willingham said. “We’ll have to find some guys at the top to be able to get on base like Ben and Denard did. That’s always a key to have your top two guys get on base. But you look at the meat of our order, you’ve got Joe, Justin, me, Ryan (Doumit) and Trevor (Plouffe). It’s a pretty formidable lineup. If we can figure out a couple things at the top, that will help us.”
The Twins signed Willingham to a three-year deal, meaning he’s inked through the 2014 season. He’ll make $7 million each of the next two seasons.
If Willingham can produce like he did in 2012, that dollar amount will be a bargain for Minnesota.