Friday, November 5, 2010

A Simple 2B Solution

Over the years, the Twins two biggest weaknesses have undoubtedly been at third base and second base. Corey Koskie was the only major league caliber third baseman this team ever really started in the last decade, at least until Danny Valencia got called up and played very well during his rookie campaign. The team tried to fill their second base hole last year by signing Orlando Hudson, who actually was better than what they had gotten over the years but still was below average thanks to a brutal September in which he hit .202/.252/.253. With the Twins basically admitting they're going to let Orlando Hudson go, and Danny Valencia returning to fill the hole at third base, the Twins only considerable weakness as I've said over and over is going to be at second base.

I've taken a look at Alexi Casilla and concluded that giving the starting second base job to him would be a mistake, regardless of how much money the Twins would save. I understand their logic, because if they are simply going to replace Hudson with another veteran and get basically the same production for $5MM, Casilla is absolutely the better option. However, neither choice would be a 'good option' in my opinion. So what should the Twins do to fill the need?

Move Michael Cuddyer back to second base. Gardy gave Cuddyer a few starts at third base this year before giving Valencia the job full-time, and I was against the move then. Cuddyer's defense at third has always been among the worst in the league, and expecting him to suddenly go from a corner outfield spot to arguably the most difficult position on the field at the drop of a hat seemed ill-advised. Cuddyer looked terrible at third during his few starts, of course, and Gardy ultimately moved him back to the outfield before Justin Morneau's concussion forced Cuddyer to play first base.

Now, some of the worries that I had about Cuddyer going back to third base are absolutely still worrisome with him moving back to second. He hasn't played second base really at all since 2004, and even then he only played 48 games there. He's played a total of 62 games there in his career, and his UZR/150 over his career is a slightly below average -1.3. When he played second base most consistently in 2004, though, he posted a -5.6 UZR/150. Now it's been over six years since he last played the position, so it'd be silly for us to assume he's just going to automatically post that number again. While there's a slim chance Cuddyer understands the game much better and will now position himself better, that's probably extremely unlikely and the most likely result is that Cuddyer would take a month or so to get re-acclimated to the position. Even then, he's almost certainly lost a step or two, at least, so his range would also be hurt. Over a full season, I would expect Cuddyer to post about a -12 UZR/150. It's possible he'd be better, but defense has never been his strong suit and the evidence would suggest that he'd be poor as a defensive second baseman as well.

While Cuddyer would absolutely be a below-average defensive player, his offense would more than likely be well above average for a second baseman. This past season, Cuddyer was unable to match his 2009 season in which he hit .276/.342/.520 with 32 home runs. His final 2010 numbers aren't really all that close to his 2009 numbers, but he did hit .271/.336/.417. He dealt with both knee and shoulder injuries during the season though, and while a return to his 2009 numbers seems unlikely next season, his power should be helped with a healthier body.

Even if Cuddyer simply matches his numbers from last season, his .753 OPS would have ranked him 11th among all MLB second baseman who qualified for the batting title, but it would have been the second best OPS in the American League behind only Robinson Cano. (Cuddyer's 2009 season would have resulted in the 4th best mark among 2B)

The Twins have hinted that they are going to fill the second base position in-house to save money. Cuddyer's going to be making $11.5MM regardless of the position he plays, and rather than using that money on a below-average corner outfielder, Cuddyer would be a slightly above-average second baseman. Now, you may be wondering "Why does it matter where he plays? His numbers will be the same either way." This is correct. However, it's much easier to find someone to post an .800 OPS or so at a corner outfield spot than it would be at second base. The Twins have said they plan to try to bring back Jim Thome. He's going to be a bit more expensive this time around, as he only made $1.5MM before incentives last year, but $4MM seems like a fair amount of money for a part-time player who kills the ball against righties. He might even get less.

With Thome's return, though, the team would have five players for four positions if Cuddyer remains in the outfield. Justin Morneau would undoubtedly start basically every day at first base, leaving Cuddyer, Thome, Delmon Young and Jason Kubel to fight over the corner outfield positions and the DH. Neither Thome nor Kubel should play against lefties, but Gardy has shown over the years that he doesn't seem to understand the benefits of a platoon, as he continued to start Jacque Jones 150 times a year despite his inability to hit lefties as well. By moving Cuddyer to second base, the team could add someone like Marcus Thames who kills lefties for around $2MM. There are plenty of corner outfield/DH types that hit lefties well, and one of these days I'll take a look at those players.

It's worth mentioning that several local writers and even Ron Gardenhire at times has said that Cuddyer's breakout offensive season was due in large part to moving to the outfield. I'm not going to pretend to understand what goes through Cuddyer's mind, because it's definitely possible he simply felt more comfortable in the outfield and it translated to his at-bats as well. But I don't agree with that line of thinking at all. Cuddyer moved to the outfield pretty much full time in 2006 and he hit .284/.362/.504 for what is still his career high OPS of .867. So on the surface it seems to at least make some sense; Cuddyer moves to right field, gets consistent playing time, and his offensive output skyrockets. I understand why some people came to that conclusion; but the more likely reason his numbers improved so much are because, well, he finally figured it out.

Cuddyer was 27-years-old in 2006, his breakout year. That's the age that almost every single player will have his career year, at least the players who follow the norm. It makes sense, because by this point the player's body is at it's ultimate peak; Cuddyer to this point had spent almost ten years in the system and the last four years on a major league training plan. He also had spent parts of his first four years soaking up information. As a former top-10 pick and a top of the line prospect, it wasn't surprising to see Cuddyer hit as well as he did. The reason I don't think it had anything to do with moving to the outfield, though, is because Cuddyer posted an OPS of .790 in 2007 and then really struggled in 2008, posting a .699 OPS in just 71 games as he just couldn't stay healthy. He spent basically every inning in the outfield during those two years, as well, but yet his numbers were much more similar to his pre-2006 numbers. It was simply a coincidence that Cuddyer happened to move to the outfield the same year he basically entered his prime; I remain convinced he would have put up the same numbers at either second or third base that year.

His 2009 season was a great comeback year, as he stayed healthy and posted the .862 OPS I mentioned earlier. This was the first year since 2005 that he spent a decent amount of time in the infield, as he spent 34 games at first base while Justin Morneau missed time. I think it's safe to say we can put the whole 'He's a better hitter in the outfield' argument to rest once and for all. The best argument against it is that his defense could be even worse than expected, but even then his offense has at least the potential to more than make up for it. If the Twins simply try Cuddyer at second base for the first few months of the season and are at that point certain that it cannot work for whatever reason, they will still have Alexi Casilla ready to step in. Since Casilla appears to be the plan as of now anyways, the team really has nothing to lose by giving the job to Cuddyer instead. There's almost no chance that even at his absolute worst Cuddyer wouldn't still be a more valuable player than Casilla is likely to be this season.

This lineup:

Span, Mauer, Morneau, Young, Kubel, Thome, Cuddyer, Valencia, Hardy

Looks much better than this lineup:

Span, Casilla, Mauer, Morneau, Young, Thome, Cuddyer, Valencia, Hardy

I doubt the team decides to actually try this out, although it's not impossible to rule out considering Gardy was willing to try Cuddyer at third mid-season to get his best offensive players in the lineup last year. That gives me hope that the team will in fact realize Cuddyer at second base gives them their best chance to win on a nightly basis, and since the $11.5MM is already being spent on him, it's worthwhile to make him more valuable by simply moving him to a weaker position.


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