Friday, August 5, 2011

Who is Michael Cuddyer?

Cuddyer becomes the first Twins position player to pitch since John Moses in 1990
The longest-tenured current Twin, Cuddyer has had an interesting journey to this stage in his career.  A hot prospect for many years, Cuddyer bounced between being a frustrating disappointment and a key contributor for many years before settling in as one of the most popular Twins players, particularly among the media.

Cuddyer was drafted by Minnesota in the first round in 1997.  As with many top prospects, negotiations lasted a while and he did not sign until mid-August, meaning his professional debut would wait until 1998.  After a strong performance at low Single-A that year, Cuddyer began his five-year stint on Baseball-America's list of the top 100 prospects in baseball, never rating worse than #55.  Remaining such a highly rated prospect for so long is relatively unusual because the player normally reaches the big leagues or plays poorly enough to be removed from the list within that period of time.

Following a particularly impressive season at Double-A in 2001 in which he hit 30 home runs, Cuddyer got a cup of coffee with the Twins in late September.  He returned to the minors for the next season, putting up even better numbers at Triple-A.  That resulted in him getting two different stints with the Twins during the 2002 season, not to mention his inclusion on the playoff roster.  Overall his season was just solid, but he did hit well in the divisional series against the Oakland Athletics.

All of that was enough to get him to #17 in Baseball America's prospect rankings, his highest position in his last season being eligible for the list, since he'd no longer be considered a rookie after the 2003 season.  Though he made the big league club out of Spring Training, Cuddyer struggled and was sent back to Triple-A in early May as he was hitting just .233.  He would not return until August 31, despite putting up very good numbers in the minors once again.  He ended the season with solid but unspectacular statistics, just as he had in 2003.

The next two seasons saw more of the same.  Cuddyer was a full-time big leaguer and got relatively frequent at bats over the two seasons, but did appreciably improve his performance.  Given his prospect status, the merely solid lines he regularly produced had become quite disappointing.  Before the 2006 season, in fact, many fans had soured on him and were ready to get rid of him.  Of course, Cuddyer finally broke out in 2006, slugging 24 homers, driving in over 100 runs, and increasing his OPS by about 100 points.  Having played predominately infield--third base, second base, and first base--Cuddyer spent this season as the Twins' regular right fielder.

Cuddyer's performance in 2007, however, was closer to his early career than it was to his breakout year.  Still, the Twins saw fit to reward him with a 3-year, $24 million contract.  While not necessarily exorbitant, the contract was probably more than a small-market team such as Minnesota should have been willing to spend on a player of Cuddyer's ilk.  That problem only became exacerbated when Cuddyer put together the worst season of his career in 2008, in no small part due to injuries.  He dislocated his right index finger just a few days into the season, and then, after returning in late April, injured his left index finger at the end of June.  This time he would miss more than two months, compounded by the fact that he fractured his foot while on a rehab assignment.  Though he missed more than half the season due to these injuries, he was also ineffective when he was in the lineup.

The tide had definitively turned once again, as Twins fans regarded Cuddyer as an overpaid player who was unnecessarily locked into a starting spot because of his contract.  But Cuddyer had one more turn planned.  In the midst of a good season that was only a shade worse than 2006, he was forced to move to first base in mid-September when Justin Morneau was placed on the disabled list.  He cemented a place in the hearts of Twins fans with a memorable performance to end that season, hitting .325 with 8 homers, 24 RBIs, and a 1.073 OPS over the final 21 games to help the Twins complete a historic comeback and overtake the Detroit Tigers for the division championship.

Cuddyer's numbers dropped again in 2010, but are again at their 2006 level this season.  An accomplished magician and a favorite of the Twins media, Cuddyer has had many memorable moments with the Twins.  He's hit for the cycle, he's the only Twin to ever hit two home runs in the same inning, and he even got on the mound and pitched earlier this season in a 20-6 blowout.  Oddly enough, his positive presence has created a backlash, as some fans think the Twins overvalue him because of this.  While this is probably true, he is still a good player who is fun to have on your team, even if Ron Gardenhire sometimes insists on putting him at positions, such as second base and centerfield, that he is clearly not qualified to play.

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