MINNEAPOLIS - 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 centre.
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."
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