Healthy Willingham looked to for offense

Healthy Willingham looked to for offense

JUPITER, Fla. -- Goal No. 1 for Josh Willingham is staying healthy.

In years past, the steady Marlins left fielder had modest aspirations, like 80 RBIs or 20 home runs.

But after a herniated disc in his back affected his play for much of last September, the 29-year-old from Florence, Ala., is pacing himself this Spring Training in hopes of holding up for the long haul.

"I'm trying to manage it so I can play 150 games this year," Willingham said. "That's the goal. My back feels good. It's a different kind of spring for me. I've got to get myself ready, thinking about the long run."

Willingham projects to hit either cleanup or fifth in the order, and he is being counted on to replace some of the production lost now that Miguel Cabrera has been traded to the Tigers.

Taken in the 17th round the 2000 First-Year Player Draft, Willingham is entering his third full season. As a rookie in 2006, his spring was an unusual one; the Marlins weren't sure if he would catch or play the outfield. He ended up spending most of the spring catching, but encountered back spasms. Since the team valued him getting at least 500 at-bats, there was a fear that catching would wear down his production at the plate.

So, a few days before the season opened, he was moved to left field, and he's been there since.

"In '06, I didn't know if I was catching or playing left, [and I was] making sure I was on the team," Willingham said. "Now, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be in left field, so you want to make sure you're ready for when the season starts. I want to make sure that everything is working together, my back is good, and I'm feeling good. Now, it is getting to the last part of spring, and you are pushing through things."

In 2007, Willingham finished with a .265 average, including 21 homers and 89 RBIs. He appeared in 144 games. As a rookie in 2006, he saw action in 142 games and finished with a .277 average, while posting 26 homers and 74 RBIs.

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The Marlins remain one of the youngest teams in the league, but a number of their regulars are becoming more established. As the club collectively matures, Willingham says the team must improve on some of the basics to blossom into a contender.

A year ago, the Marlins led the Major Leagues in errors, and their pitching staff ranked among the leaders in allowing walks.

"We played well last year in different phases of the game," he said. "We competed with everybody and won big games against everybody. Then there were times when, obviously, the key things were walks and errors. Those [are] two things that will kill you. When we were going badly, we were making errors, giving people extra outs, walking a lot of people, and stuff like that."

While the Marlins have played pretty crisply for most of Spring Training, sloppy defense hurt them in the fourth inning on Saturday against the Orioles. Dan Uggla made a throwing error on what could have been a double play, which resulted in two runs scoring. And Hanley Ramirez committed an error on a routine grounder in the same inning.

While all three runs the Orioles scored in the inning were earned, the misplays resulted in more pitches for Rick VandenHurk.

"This team has got to play better baseball in general," Willingham said. "We haven't had problems scoring a lot of runs the past two years. We haven't gotten beaten 1-0 a lot. We've just got to play better baseball.

"What you can't do is have two or three routine plays a game booted and they score unnecessary runs that way," he continued. "Or you walk four leadoff guys in the game. That's what can't happen. You've got go make teams earn their runs. They are going to hit it around some and score some runs that way. You can't give them runs that they don't earn."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.