Depending on whom you are reading at the moment, the Tampa Bay Rays are making a serious run at Josh Willingham. Still, despite being a reported finalist, there is concern that the team might not be able to outbid the other teams vying for his services. Recent changes to the collective bargaining agreement removed the first-round bounty on Willingham and several other free agents — which is good news for the Rays — but likely expands his market to include deeper-pocketed teams like the Boston Red Sox. If Tampa Bay can somehow outlast the competition it could be a perfect pairing of talent and need.
And all this couldn’t have happened at a better time for the “Hammer.” Willingham certainly helped himself with a powerful contract year in Oakland: he hit a career-best 29 home runs and belted 26 doubles in 563 plate appearances. His .232 ISO was nearly 20 points higher than his career average, whih landed him between Josh Hamilton (.238) and Robinson Cano (.231) on the American League leaderboard.
Recently, Jeff Zimmerman noted that Willingham hit home runs with greater distance in 2011; Zimmerman also found that Willingham turned on, and pulled, more balls down the left-field line. Willingham did this with a home ballpark that was extremely harsh on right-handed home-run hitters. If Willingham’s improved home-run rate proves to be a legitimate, lasting change in talent — and not just a one-year blip — his next team could be tapping into a reservoir of power.
Which brings us right back to the Rays. The team’s home park, Tropicana Field, has morphed into one of the more pitcher-friendly stadiums in the AL. At the same time, it was still about 10% kinder to right-handed batters, in terms of home runs (Statcorner.com). Should Willingham hit home runs at a similar rate, he could improve on his 2011 number based simply on park factors. Also remember that Willingham did his damage in 560 plate appearances. Johnny Damon, on the other hand, racked up nearly 650 PA as the Rays’ DH. A full, healthy, season of Willingham would increase counting stats, as well.
If the thought is Willingham’s improvement is not just a product of sample size, we must also acknowledge potential flaws. Perhaps consciously, his power increase coincided with a loss in plate discipline. His 9.9% walk rate was below his career average of 11.3%, and was a steady drop off from the 14.2% he posted in 2010. While lowering his walks, he increased his strikeouts nearly 10% year-over-year and more than 5% over his career mark. This is definitely a red flag for a player on the wrong side of 30; still, a scouting department should be able to tell if the increased whiffs are a sign of declining bat speed or just a byproduct of swinging for the fences.
Andrew Friedman’s interest in Willingham is nothing new. The Rays have reportedly had interest in trading for him in each of the past two seasons. The potentially new version of Willingham might be even more attractive to a Rays team in need of improved offensive production — especially of the extra-base variety. While his drop in discipline took a toll on Willingham’s on-base percentage — and lowered his wOBA despite the increase in power — the Rays would be banking on an improvement from Willingham’s 55 extra-base hits hit a season ago.
In other words, should the team somehow outbid other Willingham suitors, the reward might be well worth the investment.