Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Twins and Michael Cuddyer

As has been well documented, the Twins love to have players that "play the game the right way." Not only because I have no clue what that actually constitutes, but I'm not a big fan of that philosophy. If I had to guess, I'd say the Twins would suggest "playing the game the right way" means being able to play good defense, steal bases, and get down sacrifice bunts in important situations.  While defense can make a big difference over the course of a season, there's not a lot of evidence to suggest the Twins scouts are actually any good at projecting players future defense. Torii Hunter was fantastic, among others, but when the team traded for Delmon Young they touted him as a possible five-tool player. They obviously saw Young's above average speed and cannon of an arm and figured he would learn to play defense. His athletic gifts were simply too special, they said. Obviously, that was laughably wrong, as we've seen Young take terrible route after terrible route to the ball. Stealing bases is extremely overrated, as a team would need to succeed slightly more than 75% of the time for it to pay off over a full season. Not a lot of players can steal a lot of bases with such a high success rate. Bunting? A waste in almost every situation.

I mention this because the Twins have a tough decision to make this off-season. Michael Cuddyer, who was drafted by the Twins way back in 1997, is a free agent. After a great first four months to the season, Cuddyer struggled for most of September, although he's been better of late. Cuddyer is making $10.5MM this season, and he seems to be right on the border of a Type A free agent or a Type B free agent. It's a no-brainer for the Twins to offer Cuddyer arbitration, because he seems likely to get a multi-year offer, which makes it likely Cuddyer would reject an abritration offer. Of course, if Cuddyer accepted it wouldn't be the end of the world. Having him on a 1-year, $12MM contract or so would be fine.

Ultimately, I think Cuddyer will sign for something like 3 yrs/$30MM, so the Twins need to decide if they want to spend $10MM a year over the next three years to keep him on the team. Is he worth that kind of money? Let's take a look.

This season, Cuddyer is hitting .279/.347/.455, which puts his OPS just over .800. He's on pace to hit 22 home runs, and he's been the Twins best offensive player pretty much all season. He hit .271/.336/.417 last season, so a giant bounce back to his 2009 line of .276/.342/.520 seems unlikely.

Cuddyer will turn 33 before the beginning of next season, and it's rarely wise to pay market-value type money to someone for their age 33, 34 and 35 seasons. However, the Twins undoubtedly are going to at least try to re-sign him because he "plays the game the Twins way."

Even if Cuddyer somehow produces as well over the next three years as he has this year, he'd still be slightly overpaid at $10MM a year. It's much easier to replace an .800 OPS at a corner outfield spot than it would be at a middle infield position, for example.

That said, it's unlikely that Cuddyer will in fact produce as well over the next three seasons as he has this year. As much credit as the team likes to give Cuddyer for being so versatile, the fact is he's a poor defender wherever he plays. He's not an asset at a single defensive position, so the fact that he is capable of playing some infield or center field in a pinch should not be seen as a positive. Danny Valencia could be a "versatile player" by those standards as well, because he'd likely be a poor outfielder and a poor middle infielder. Just because the team plays him at multiple positions does not mean his versatility is a good thing.

Ultimately, it would be in the Twins best interests to let Cuddyer get his next payday elsewhere. As much as I like Cuddyer, from everything he does in the community to the pranks and magic tricks he plans in the locker room, the fact is the Twins need to be sure they are spending their money wisely over the next few years. With Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau owed $38MM combined through 2014, wise spending is a necessity. That $38MM is about 33% of a $115MM payroll, and the team would need to fill 23 spots with that remaining chunk. If the team paid Cuddyer $10MM a year, they'd be spending almost 42% of their payroll on just three players.

It just doesn't make sense, especially when history suggests his best years are behind him. Add in the fact that watching Cuddyer sign elsewhere would give the Twins two more high draft picks, and it really shouldn't be a tough decision. But it will be, because Cuddyer "plays the game the right way," whatever that means.