Willingham looks to build on career year

Willingham looks to build on career year

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In many ways, the 2012 season was a career year for Josh Willingham.

The left fielder set career highs in home runs (35), RBIs (110), runs (85) and OPS (.890) en route to winning his first Silver Slugger Award.

Now the question is what the 34-year-old slugger can do for an encore in his second season with the Twins, but Willingham isn't one for making serious predictions.

"If I don't hit 50 this year I'm going home," Willingham said, joking. "Nah, I don't know what I did for myself. I've never hit that many homers or driven in that many runs. A lot of that had to do with some guys at the top of the order and hitting behind Joe [Mauer], who was on base all the time. So I don't know. I don't set number goals anyway. But one of the keys was being healthy."

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, however, sees no reason why Willingham can't repeat his numbers from a year ago.

"Our ballpark plays well for him," Gardenhire said. "I don't see why he couldn't do pretty close to the same thing. I don't know why he wouldn't. He can jerk the ball and put it in the seats. So I'm looking forward to letting him go again and see what happens."

One of the keys last season was that Willingham was able to stay on the field, as he also played in a career-best 145 games and avoided the disabled list.

The Twins found a good formula for Willingham, who played 119 games in left field, but also served as designated hitter 25 times when he needed a break from the field. Willingham also said he's found an offseason workout plan that he instituted before the 2011 season that has helped keep him healthy, as he also played in 136 games with Oakland in '11.

"I've done the same thing for about three offseasons in a row now," said Willingham, who starts his workouts around Thanksgiving before beginning baseball activities in early January. "It's the same timeframe, the same workouts. One of the things you find out throughout your career is what works for you and what doesn't. So, you have to incorporate some things you do with what your strength guy wants you to do."

Willingham will again be counted on to be an anchor in Minnesota's lineup this season, as he's expected to be sandwiched in between Mauer and Justin Morneau, just like last year.

The middle of the order is the Twins' strength this season, as Ryan Doumit is also coming off a career year while youngsters Trevor Plouffe and Chris Parmelee have also shown flashes of power potential.

"We just have to continue to do what we did," Willingham said. "Some guys had some pretty good years last year. I know Morneau would like to have had a little better year, but he's probably going to be a lot healthier, which will have a lot to do with his success. But I think a lot of it will have to do with the top of the order. Denard [Span] and Ben [Revere] did a lot for us both offensively and defensively."

As Willingham pointed out, the Twins are without Span and Revere this season, as they were both traded as part of the club's quest to add starting pitching. Span was shipped to Washington for top pitching prospect Alex Meyer, while Revere was traded to Philadelphia for Vance Worley and pitching prospect Trevor May.

With Span and Revere out of the picture, Darin Mastroianni is the favorite to win the leadoff spot in Spring Training, but he'll be pushed hard by prospects Aaron Hicks and Joe Benson. Willingham said he was surprised by the trades, but understood the rationale.

"We needed some pitching," Willingham said. "I'm sure it wasn't their goal to trade both those guys, but it's what happened to hopefully better our team."

So while Willingham is pleased with the way last season went for him personally, the Twins struggled again in '12, finishing with the worst record in the American League for a second straight year.

But Willingham said he believes this team can be better than last season, especially after adding arms such as Worley, Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia to the rotation.

"It's frustrating when you lose 96 games," Willingham said. "At the same time, there are things we need to continue to do and things we need to improve on. Our bullpen was very good for us pretty much all year long, especially at the back end. The offense was pretty consistent. But it's no secret our starting pitching needed help and that's why we had to trade a few good players to get pitching."

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Bollinger Beat, and follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.