Projected Starter: Michael Cuddyer
2006 Stats: .284/.362/.504, 24 HR, 109 RBI
Potential Backups: Jason Kubel, Jason Tyner, Lew Ford
From the moment the Twins selected Michael Cuddyer with the ninth overall pick in the 1997 draft, the pressure has been on him to produce. The right-handed hitter showed his potential with some big seasons in the minor leagues, and made his big-league debut as a 21-year-old in 2001. Yet, for various reasons, it wasn't until last year that he truly blossomed as a major-league hitter.
Prior to last season, Cuddyer had drawn my ire because of his frustrating inability to showcase his true talent in the majors. On multiple occasions he had received a crack at a starting job (be it in right field or at third base) and each time he had failed to produce enough offensively to hold down the spot. He had shown significant propensities for striking out, getting off to miserably slow starts (he's a career .217 hitter in April), and failing to come through in important situations.
As it turned out, 2006 was the season that Cuddyer finally managed to turn things around and put together a big season. He still got off to a fairly slow start, and he still piled up the strikeouts (130 on the season), but he was extremely clutch and he delivered the big power with his bat that had not consistently been there throughout his major-league career. With runners in scoring position last year, Cuddyer hit .313/.412/.580. Against left-handed pitching, he hit .297/.376/.518. His ability to drive in runs and mash lefties made Cuddyer a perfect fit in the cleanup spot between Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and Cuddy's ability to thrive in that spot was of crucial importance because of Rondell White's hugely disappointing first half.
Now Cuddyer enters the 2007 season entrenched as the team's starting right fielder. Right field has been a shaky position for the Twins for the past several years, and this is the first time since the departure of Matt Lawton that the team can really enter a season feeling comfortable that they have a true offensive force locked in there. While Cuddyer's performance last year was head-and-shoulders above anything he's done previously as a major-leaguer, it was in line with his skills and his minor-league numbers, and at 28 he will still be right in the middle of his prime years, so there is really no reason to expect his numbers to regress much this season. I would project a hitting line around .270/.360/.510 with 25 home runs and 100 RBI.
Defensively, Cuddyer isn't supremely talented but he does possess a strong arm that can keep opposing base-runners conservative. He'll misread a fly ball or make a boneheaded mistake every now and then, but for the most part he is not a liability in the outfield.
As for depth, Lew Ford and Jason Tyner appear to be the top backup choices at this point. Jason Kubel is a capable right fielder, but his future appears to be in the other corner outfield spot for now. The Twins have been working on giving power-hitter Garrett Jones, who has played first base through much of his minor-league career, some work in the outfield. Unfortunately, Jones has had a horrible spring and doesn't project as a decent major-league hitter. On top of that, he has reportedly looked lost in the outfield. I don't think we'll ever see him playing an outfield spot in a Twins uniform.
Cuddyer has turned himself into a prototypical right fielder and cleanup hitter, with the ability to hit for power and drive in runs. It's certainly reasonable to expect him to post numbers similar to the ones he put up last season, and if he's able to do that he'll once again be a crucial component in the Twins' lineup.