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17th round, 195 homers: the career of Josh Willingham

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Drafted in the 17th round in 2000, Josh Willingham didn't get a clear shot in the majors until he was 27 years old, but still hit almost 200 homers.

Josh Willingham
Josh Willingham
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Current indications are that Kansas City Royals outfielder/DH Josh Willingham will announce his retirement at the end of the 2014 post-season. Willingham had an unusual path as a prospect, making him a great topic for a Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile as his tenure winds down.

Josh Willingham was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 17th round in 2000, from the University of North Alabama. He was an excellent hitter in college, batting .424/.526/.715 over a three-year career, but non-elite physical tools, questions about his future position, and worries about the quality of his college competition limited his draft stock.

He hit .263/.400/.429 in 65 games for Utica in the New York-Penn League, showing excellent plate discipline (35 walks, 59 strikeouts in 205 at-bats) but not earning much in the way of scouting notice. I did not write about many short-season players back then, but would give a similar player a Grade C nowadays, perhaps with a sleeper notation given his plate discipline and college domination.

Willingham moved up to Kane County in the Low-A Midwest League in 2001, hitting .259/.382/.400. Again, he showed impressive strike zone judgment but his power was a bit disappointing given what he did in college. He played third base and wasn't terrible, but scouting reports remained unenthusiastic. One item of note: despite average speed, he stole 24 bases in 26 attempts, testifying to his baseball instincts.

Promoted to High-A Jupiter in the Florida State League for 2002, he hit .274/.394/.487 with 17 homers, 18 steals, 63 walks, and 88 strikeouts in 376 at-bats. His playing time was split between first base, third base, and the outfield, with adequate results at all positions, although he converted to catcher that fall. His broad-based performance stood out and I filed this report for 2003:

Florida picked up Josh Willingham in the 17th round of the 2000 draft, from the University of North Alabama. He was converted to catcher in instructional league this past fall, and is said to have taken to the position well. He has a strong arm, but of course he’ll need time to get the footwork down, learn to call a game, etc. Offensively, Willingham features good strike zone judgment, some speed, and decent power. His SEC was outstanding at +79 percent last year, showing a broad base of skills. I want to see his bat in Double-A, and it may take him some time to get his defense behind the plate up to par, but he’s got the potential to be a very interesting player. Grade C+.

The catching conversion gave mixed results but he continued to hit very well in '03, hitting .277/.427/.569 with 18 homers between Jupiter and Double-A Carolina. Unfortunately he missed much of the season with a knee injury. For 2004:

The Marlins converted ex-corner infielder Josh Willingham to catcher in ’03. The good news is that he has sufficient arm strength and mobility to handle the position once he gets more experience. The bad news is that he missed half the season with a knee injury. He has a good, solid bat, with power and plate discipline. I don’t think he’ll hit for a great average at the major league level, but he’ll have enough pop and patience to be useful. He needs another year to get the finer points of catching down, and we need to see if that knee problem develops into something chronic. Grade C+.

'04 was an outstanding season offensively: he hit .281/.449/.565 with 24 homers, 91 walks, and just 87 strikeouts in 338 at-bats, leading the Southern League in OPS and earning a brief major league trial. However, his defense was stagnant. He wasn't a terrible receiver, but he wasn't exactly good either and had a lot of problems throwing out baserunners. Still, the bat looked strong:

Josh Willingham led the Southern League in OPS last year, +39 percent compared to league average, due to his combination of power and plate discipline. He won’t hit much higher than .250 at the Major League level, but scouts believe his strike zone judgment will carry forward. If it does, .250 will be enough for him to be an effective hitter, since his walks and power will make up the shortfall in the AVG column. The question here is defense. Willingham tries hard; indeed, he has an excellent work ethic. But his defense behind the plate is mediocre, at best, and his range at first base is limited. He doesn’t really fit well with a National League team, although a creative manager should be able to find a way for him to get 300-400 at-bats in a season. He’s not young as prospects go, so he deserves a chance soon. Grade C+.

Another bout of injury, this time a fractured forearm, limited him to 66 games for Triple-A Albuqeruque in 2005. He continued to mash at .324/.455/.676, but that's Albuquerque, his glove remained problematic, he was now 26 years old, and a lot of people were skeptical. However, since he was playing in the Pacific Coast League I got an extended look at seeing him play and was convinced that his combination of power and plate discipline would work in the majors, leading to this unusual praise entering 2006:

This is a family book, and I try to keep my explicatory cursing to a minimum here, although I tend, given the right circumstances, to talk like a drunken sailor in person. So those with delicate eyes should turn away.  But, just to make the point here as succinctly as I can, I feel it necessary to write that Josh Willingham can fucking hit. He has plus power and outstanding plate discipline, and has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. The question is positional. Although he has a strong arm, and although he tries hard at catching, he isn’t more than barely adequate defensively behind the plate, and is better-suited to first base. In this way, he could fill a Matt LeCroy-like 1B/C role for the right team. It isn’t clear how he fits with the Marlins, although the trade of Carlos Delgado should open up a spot for him, perhaps in a platoon role with Mike Jacobs, although I don’t think that Willimgham is necessarily limited to being a platoon hitter. He is at his peak now and deserves to play, but whether or not he gets the chance will depend on other factors. Grade B due to age.

As you know, the Marlins finally found a spot for Willingham in the outfield and he responded immediately, hitting .277/.356/.496 with 26 homers, OPS+ 121, wRC+120, 1.8 fWAR in his rookie campaign of 2006. And he continued to post similar numbers for the rest of his career, averaging 28 homers per 162 games over his tenure with the Marlins, Nationals, Athletics, Twins, and finally the Royals.

Josh Willingham

Josh Willingham, photo by J. Meric, Getty Images

His peak season was with the Twins in 2012, hitting .260/.366/.524 with 35 homers, 110 RBI, OPS+ 143, wRC+142, and a 3.5 WAR. He was dragged down by injuries from that point.

Overall though, it was a successful career. As projected from his minor league performance, Willingham never hit for great averages, finishing with a .253/.358/.465. However, his power and his strong OBPs made him productive, giving him a career 120 OPS+/122 wRC+ and a career WAR of 17.6.

For comparable players, Sim Score brings up the following names (retired players only): Cliff Johnson, Preston Wilson, Pete Incaviglia, Glenallen Hill, Gus Zernial, Wally Post, Don Mincher, Glenn Davis, and Phil Nevin. Among players with a similar amount of playing time, Willingham's 17.6 WAR puts him in league with Davis (18.3), Rusty Greer (18.1), Cleon Jones (17.9), Gary Ward (17.5), Carl Everett (17.3), Johnson (17.1), and Tony Armas (16.5).

This was an unusually good career for a guy who didn't get to play regularly until he was 27. In retrospect, Willingham was most likely ready to hit in the majors by 2004 at the age of 25, although injuries and the attempt to make him a catcher slowed his progression. This was still an excellent outcome for a 17th round pick, and he was one of my favorite players of the last decade.