By Jon Krawczynski
AP Baseball Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins welcomed Josh Willingham to the team on Thursday, a move that had many bracing for a wave goodbye to Michael Cuddyer.
Willingham agreed to a $21 million, three-year contract, giving the Twins a player with strikingly similar offensive numbers to Cuddyer's over the past six seasons.
Twins GM Terry Ryan was unavailable for comment on Thursday and the team planned to hold an introductory conference call with Willingham on Friday. Ryan said earlier in the week the team had not ruled out Cuddyer returning, and it's no secret that both Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire would love to keep the versatile veteran around both for production on the field and leadership in the clubhouse.
Adding Willingham, a right-handed hitting outfielder to help balance out a lefty-heavy lineup, would help ease the sting if Cuddyer doesn't return. The 32-year-old hit .246 with a career-high 29 homers and 98 RBIs for the A's last year.
Cuddyer hit .284 with 20 homers and 70 RBIs last season, earning an All-Star bid for the first time in his 11-year career. Over the past six seaons, Cuddyer has hit .266 with 66 homers while Willingham has hit .257 with 69 home runs.
Willingham has played mostly left field throughout his career, but the Twins would likely have to move to him right field if Cuddyer goes, so the weak-armed Ben Revere could play left field.
Willingham 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. He has only reached that plateau one time in that last four years, with Oakland Athletics last season.
The Twins were looking for more power from the right side of the plate to help balance a batting order that has lefties Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau near the top. Willingham has topped 20 homers four times in six full major league seasons, and the hope is he will have similar success at spacious Target Field, one of the most difficult ballparks to hit it over the fence.
If Cuddyer does leave, the Twins would receive two draft picks as compensation.
He has been a Gardenhire favorite for years because of his hustle, discipline, dependability and versatility. Cuddyer has played right field, center field, first base, second base, third base and DH over the last few seasons for the Twins, filling in for numerous injuries the team has endured.
But the Twins are also determined to keep the payroll at around $100 million, meaning Cuddyer would likely have to take a decent paycut from the four-year, $33 million contract he just finished to stay in Minnesota.