A’s fans have become quite accustomed to watching our former players find a good deal of success, and money, with another organization once they’re traded away or hit free agency. Whether it’s a homegrown star or a keen trade acquisition, there’s no shortage of departed players who have gone elsewhere to achieve their greatest glory, much to our chagrin. Although Josh Willingham is finishing up an injury-riddled second year with a substandard Minnesota Twins team in the midst of its third consecutive losing season, he set a number of career highs last season and he’s making more scratch than ever. More importantly, as last night showed, he’s killing the A’s every time he faces them.
Since signing with the Twins, Willingham has been hell-bent on torturing Billy Beane and A’s fans. Before last year, Willingham had never played against the A’s. During his time in Minnesota, Willingham has played against the A’s 10 times with 37 at-bats. He has batted a blistering .405 in those at-bats, with two doubles, seven homers and 17 RBIs.
To put this in perspective, the team Willingham has pounded with home runs the most in his career is the Philadelphia Phillies, with 17 in 256 at-bats over 80 games. At his current rate, he would only need 15 or so more games against the A’s to make them his biggest victim.
Against the rest of Major League Baseball, Willingham homers once every 20.3 at-bats. Against the A’s he goes long once every 5.3 at-bats.
While I should point out that this is definitely a small sample size against the A’s, there’s something to be said about a former player who keeps coming back to haunt you.
Last year, he hit a walk-off three-run homer off Brian Fuentes on May 29, and the next day he pretty much singlehandedly carried the offense with three RBIs in a 4-0 victory. And we’re well-aware of what happened last night as the A’s missed an opportunity to go up three games on the Texas Rangers in the AL West.
I should let it be known that I was a huge Willingham fan when he came over to the A’s. He is the quintessential Moneyball player: An undervalued talent with a great batting eye that was knocked more for what he couldn’t do instead of praised for what he can do. Despite some productive years in the National League, the Washington Nationals virtually gave him away in a trade for Corey Brown and Henry Rodriguez, two players that have produced a combined -0.2 WAR during their brief stints in the majors.
Despite his defensive misgivings and a career-low .246 average with the A’s in 2011, Willingham gave the A’s a sorely needed power boost on a team with very few legitimate heavy hitters. He established career-highs in homers and RBIs, and his reasonable contract requests seemed to suggest he would be staying in the middle of Oakland’s lineup for the next few years. His family also loved living in the Bay Area.
To me, it seemed like a no-brainer to ink him to a three-year deal worth about $25 million. Of course, Billy Beane being Billy Beane, he surprised many people by merely offering arbitration and never trying to work out a long-term contract. As such, Willingham signed a very affordable three-year, $21 million deal with Minnesota that is an extreme bargain when he’s healthy.
FanGraphs has valued his production for last season at $15.9 million, more than double his $7 million salary. In fact, with the exception of this season, Willingham has made a career out of playing above his contract value in terms of WAR equating to dollars.
Obviously the A’s have been fine without Willingham. They won the West last year and are in prime position to repeat as division champs this season. They have plenty of power these days, and the outfield is more crowded than a gym the day after New Year’s. Bob Melvin has also done a fantastic job of rotating players in and out of the DH spot to give guys a rest from playing in the field, and having Willingham on the team would make that exceedingly difficult.
Still, it’s fun to imagine how much more deadly the A’s could be with the Hammer nailing down the middle of the lineup. It’s also fun to imagine a three game lead over Texas instead of just two.