Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Cuddy on the Bench

Changes are taking place this season. Tony Batista has been signed to play third base, Luis Castillo will man second base, and a reportedly fully-recovered Jason Kubel will take over right field duties (or, if he is not ready by the season-opener, probably Lew Ford). This indicates that Michael Cuddyer, who was the team's regular starter at third base last year, will be reduced to a bench role in 2006. After a pretty poor '05 campaign in which he embodied the team's offensive pitfalls (lack of power, poor hitting with runners aboard, grounding into double-plays), this demotion has to be seen as deserved.

The Twins were very high on Cuddyer a couple years ago. After posting a stunning .309/.379/.594 line in 83 games at Triple-A Edmonton in 2002, it was clear that Cuddy was tearing up the minor leagues and it looked like he was ready to be an impact hitter at the Major League level. At the outset of the 2003 season, the Twins had a vacancy in right field. The candidates to fill this job were Cuddyer, Dustan Mohr, and Bobby Kielty. Cuddy was handed the starting job, but couldn't hang on to it, and the Twins made a move to acquire Shannon Stewart mid-way through the season to fill the clear hole in the outfield beside Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones.

In 2005, Cuddyer was again handed a starting job; the third-base spot vacated by a departed Corey Koskie. Cuddyer had a great deal of experience at third-base from his minor league career, and in spring training he was the team's best hitter. There was reason to believe he would fill in admirably for the well-liked Koskie. Unfortunately, he did not play well enough to hold on to this job either, and Terry Ryan made it one of his top off-season priorities to upgrade at third base.

Recently, the Twins signed Cuddyer to a one-year deal to avoid arbitration, and it appears his role this year will be fourth/fifth outfielder and backup first/third-baseman. There are a lot of reasons to think he will not be successful in this role:

1) Cuddyer has shown throughout his career that he is not particularly good defensively at any of the positions he can play. He is a complete hack-job at third base, an average outfielder at best, and inexperienced at first. He is a clear downgrade from any of the guys who will be starting over him at each position he plays.

2) Cuddyer might be one of the worst players I have ever seen under pressure. He can hit just fine when it doesn't really matter; his best month last year by far came in September when the Twins were effectively out of the division race and he was frequently facing minor-league call-ups. He hit a respectable .276/.341/.472 with 10 home runs last year with nobody on base, but with runners in scoring position he crumbled, hitting .204/.306/.269 with no home runs. Since, being a bench player, Cuddyer would often be used as a pinch-hitter, this does not bode well for him, as pinch-hitters are frequently used in late-game, high-pressure situations.

3) Cuddyer takes a while to get going. Last year, he hit an incredibly bad .205/.275/.288 in April before pulling himself together and putting up decent numbers for the rest of the year. The same trend can be seen throughout his career. In 2004, he had a .238/.273/.357 line in April, and in '03 it was .190/.266/.362. When you're only getting sporadic at-bats as a bench player, needing a month's worth of regular at-bats to get going doesn't really work too well.

Some will no doubt consider this unfair, but I have pretty much given up hope that Cuddyer can develop into a serviceable Major League regular. He strikes me as a guy who can feast on bad pitching (minor leagues, spring training, September call-ups), but when he has to face solid Major League hurlers, he is completely clueless at the plate. Very frequently, he has absolutely terrible at-bats, falling behind 0-2 or hacking a grounder on one of the first couple pitches. He grounds into double-plays at a higher frequency than any other guy on the team. He has never brandished the power that made him such an enticing prospect as a minor leaguer.

If Cuddyer can overcome these gaping problems in his game, he could be a relatively valuable bench-player. Without him, the bench would be comprised of Nick Punto, Juan Castro, Lew Ford, and Mike Redmond, leaving no power off the pine and also no one to backup third or first. One option would be to carry Glenn Williams, who looked great in his 14 game Major League debut last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. He too has questions however, as he is already 30 years old and had been a mediocre minor league player up until 2004.

I hope Cuddyer can prove me wrong and produce as a backup for the Twins this year, but I don't think it's very likely. There are a lot of trends in Cuddyer's career that point to a probable lack of success in the role he will be in. If that is the case, it could mean big problems for the Twins' bench this year.