- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) - Josh Willingham insists he is willing and able to serve as designated hitter for the Minnesota Twins, if that’s what he’s asked to do.

But the veteran slugger much prefers playing left field rather to fidgeting on the bench in between at-bats. Especially now that his balky left knee has fully healed since arthroscopic surgery last July.

“I like playing left field. I think you’re more in the flow of the game,” Willingham said. “DH, you have a lot of downtime where you’re still in the game but you’re not out there playing. I’d rather be in the game.”

The 35-year-old’s career statistics support that claim.

His combined on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) last season was nearly 200 points higher (.773) in the 71 games he played in left field versus the 35 games he served as DH (.577).

Willingham has a .706 career OPS in 453 plate appearances (105 games) as the DH. That’s well below his overall career OPS of .830.

“DHing is great when you’re hitting well,” he said. “You get a hit, come in, sit down, watch the game a little bit and go get another hit. It’s easier to take the flow of the game when you’re playing the field than when you’re DHing. You stay in the game. You feel like you have to stay stretched out when you’re DHing. When you’re playing, you don’t have to do that.”

Depending on the composition of the Twins outfield, Willingham might be asked to DH more this season. It’s possible the Twins will keep the loser of a center-field battle between Aaron Hicks and Alex Presley in a bench role.

Veteran corner outfielder Jason Kubel, who returned to his original organization this offseason, is a strong contender to make the club on a non-roster deal. Young slugger Oswaldo Arcia is the front-runner to be the starting right fielder.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is noncommittal on Willingham’s role for now.

“I talk to him all the time. He feels better, feels like he’s more in the game when he’s playing in the outfield, but we’re going to have to mix in a few things here and there. He might have to DH a little bit,” Gardenhire said.

Regardless of position, Willingham appears poised for a bounce-back season after hitting just .208 with 14 home runs and 48 RBIs, all career lows.

“He’s going to enjoy baseball a lot more, I know that,” Gardenhire said. “He was miserable last year. He had the knees. He had the problems, got into a rut. You’re going to see a happier guy. The guy loves to play baseball, loves to hit.”

Entering the final season of a three-year, $21 million contract, Willingham also made it clear upon reporting to camp that he is open to signing an extension.

“I do love playing in Minnesota,” he said. “From the organization to the weather to my friends and teammates, all that stuff is a plus for me. I would love to stay here for another year or so” beyond 2014.

The Twins’ interest in extending Willingham could depend on whether he can improve his production in the DH role.

NOTES: Rookie C Josmil Pinto sat out full-squad drills for the second time in as many days with a stiff lower back. His status is day to day, but he remains hopeful of being ready in time for Friday’s Grapefruit League opener up the road against Boston. … Veteran reliever Matt Guerrier, coming off August surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon, hopes to face hitters Thursday. He has circled March 9 as a potential exhibition debut.

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