Friday, December 5, 2014

Waving Willingham Goodbye

Josh Willingham, one of the game's more underrated sluggers over the past decade, announced his retirement early last week at the age of 35.

The 2012 Silver Slugger recipient had been reduced to a role player in his final two seasons, batting .211/.344/.380 (102 OPS+) while splitting time with Minnesota and Kansas City.  Willingham's was a swift decline, for in 2012 he set career highs with 35 home runs, 110 RBI, an .890 OPS, and 3.2 bWAR, making him one of the few bright spots on a Twins squad that lost 96 games and finished last in their division.

Willingham, affectionately known as "Hammer," was hardly a one-year wonder. Though he didn't debut until he was 25 and didn't play a full season until he was 27, he managed to enjoy a productive 11-year career. He broke out with the Marlins in 2006, finishing ninth in that year's NL Rookie of the Year race (won by teammate Hanley Ramirez) on the strength of his 26 home runs, 74 RBI, and .277/.356/.496 batting line. Proving he was no fluke, Willingham followed up his big rookie campaign with a solid sophomore season that saw him bash 21 more home runs, knock in 89 and post an .827 OPS.

Despite spending 50 games on the disabled list and missing 60 in all in 2008, Willingham did not see his production suffer (.834 OPS with 15 home runs). Florida traded him to the Nationals along with Scott Olsen for Emilio Bonifacio and two prospects. Willingham whacked 40 home runs in his two seasons with Washington, putting up an .863 OPS in 2009 and an .848 OPS the year after.

Unfortunately for Willingham, the Nats dealt him just as they were beginning their ascension to National League powerhouse. He was sent packing across the country to the Oakland A's in exchange for Corey Brown and Henry Rodriguez. The move proved to be a steal for Billy Beane, as both players went bust in Washington while Willingham (in his walk year) led the 2011 A's in home runs (29), RBI (98), OPS( .810) and total bases (233).

As Athletics tend to do, Willingham walked and signed a lucrative contract elsewhere, landing a three-year, $21 million deal with the Minnesota Twins.  His monster 2012 paid off most of that salary, making him a surprisingly good investment in a then-33 year-old slugger. Though Willingham dropped off in the final two years of the deal, he still hit just enough to remain above replacement level both years. The Twins haven't done a lot right lately (see: Ricky Nolasco), but inking Willingham was one of their better moves.

At the end of a career spent toiling for miserable teams, Willingham was fortunate to be traded to the Royals, where he mostly rode the pine but at least got to experience one of the more thrilling postseason runs in recent memory (similar to Adam Dunn, another washed-up slugger, getting a brief playoff taste with Oakland this year, only that didn't turn out so well). In the twilight of his career, Willingham was part of something special, and I can think of few players more deserving.

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