Twins keep ex-GM Smith, welcome OF Willingham

The Minnesota Twins have traditionally been one of the most

stable and loyal franchises in Major League Baseball, so the

decision by former general manager Bill Smith to stay after being

fired was hardly surprising.

Even the longest of tenures with the Twins, though, don’t last

forever. Versatile veteran Michael Cuddyer, voted by local beat

writers as the team’s most valuable player in 2011, is gone. He

will be with the Colorado Rockies next season.

The Twins? They have free agent outfielder Josh Willingham under

contract for three years and $21 million.

”I think everybody knows we’re still looking for pitching as

well,” general manager Terry Ryan said Friday during a conference

call with reporters to introduce Willingham.

The Twins were interested in bringing back Cuddyer and

outfielder Jason Kubel, another homegrown player, but they chose to

move on with Willingham once the 32-year-old accepted their offer

to leave the Oakland Athletics and take his powerful bat to Target

Field.

”Ultimately it started to get to the point of no return, and we

didn’t want to be left without,” Ryan said of the delicate balance

of pursuing all three players.

Smith’s situation was sensitive, too. He was dismissed last

month after four seasons on the job as Ryan’s replacement, part of

the fallout from the team’s 63-99 record in 2011. Ryan returned to

his previous role, and after taking several weeks to regroup Smith

told Twins President Dave St. Peter he was willing to serve as an

assistant to St. Peter and Ryan.

Smith, who has been with the organization for more than 25

years, will work on upgrading the team’s spring training facilities

in Fort Myers, Fla., assessing international player development and

maintaining relationships with minor league affiliates among other

projects.

”We are excited to have this opportunity to have him on board

with hopes of maximizing his many talents,” St. Peter said in an

email.

Said Ryan: ”His strengths are most of my weaknesses. … It is

an excellent fit.”

That’s the way the Twins feel about Willingham, too. The Alabama

native, whose statistics over the past six seasons are similar to

Cuddyer’s, has primarily been a left fielder and acknowledged some

discomfort about playing right field. But he said he can make it

work with practice in spring training, and Ryan said the team

believes he’s athletic enough with a competent throwing arm to play

there.

The advantage to the Twins of putting Willingham in right is

being able to use speedy Ben Revere in left and keep Denard Span in

center.

Adding a powerful right-handed hitter to a lefty-heavy lineup

was more important. Willingham said he had serious offers from

three other teams, but he liked what he’s seen of and heard about

the Twins. Last year was his first in the American League, but a

career-high 29 home runs and 98 RBIs suggest he made the adjustment

just fine. He said he’d like to bring his on-base percentage back

up. His career mark is .361, but last year it dipped to .332.

”I think I’m at my best as an overall player offensively when

I’m going deep in some counts and working some walks,” Willingham

said.

He will make $7 million per season for each of the next three

years. If he reaches 525 plate appearances in 2013, his 2014 salary

would increase to $8 million. Last season was the only time in the

last four years he’s reached that mark.

Cuddyer has topped that in each of the last three seasons, one

reason why he was also named the winner of the team’s Bob Allison

Award given to the player who exemplifies determination,

competitive spirit and leadership. Willingham and his agent, Matt

Sosnick, said they respected the strong ties Cuddyer, their

first-round draft pick in 1997, had to the Twins.

”It was tough for us because we knew particularly Terry had a

lot of loyalty to Michael,” Sosnick said. ”He was going to give

Michael every chance to come back, and that’s what the Twins did.

Part of it was the fact that they set themselves up as a family.

They’re very loyal to their own.”

Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter:

http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP