Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What To Do With Michael Cuddyer

After a 99-loss season despite a $115MM payroll, it's clear this is a huge off-season for our Minnesota Twins. Injuries played a big part in the awfulness, and a healthy Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in 2012 would help the team improve a great deal. However, there are still a lot of issues that need to be filled. In case you missed it, I posted a two-part off-season outlook that offers a blueprint for the off-season. In the event that you don't want to read that entire piece, I suggested that the team let Michael Cuddyer leave as a free agent after offering him arbitration, therefore getting two high draft picks for him.

Now, let's see if the Twins would indeed be wise to let Cuddyer leave, per my suggestion. Last season, Cuddyer hit .284/.346/.459, which was good for an OPS of .805. He also added 20 home runs. He also made the all-star team, but that was more because the Twins had nobody else to send than anything. Certainly not on the level of a Ron Coomer type selection, though, because Cuddyer was playing at a fairly high level.

Anyways, while Cuddyer split time between RF and 1B in 2011, his value to the Twins and other teams in 2012 projects as a RF, so I will compare his 2011 numbers only to right fielders. That's important, because Cuddyer's value will come from being able to outplay the average right fielder, since he will be making far more money than an average player.

Cuddyer's .284/.346/.459 line was better than the league average of .267/.337/.431 among right fielders. His OPS of .805 was about 5% higher than the league average of .768. Meanwhile, Cuddyer's defense, which has ranked among the league's worst in recent years, rated exactly average. His UZR/150 rating was 0.1, which means his defense in RF saved one tenth of a run over 150 games. He was nearly 21 runs below that in 2010, so a regression seems likely, but if he continues to hit and defend like he did in 2011, there's no arguing Cuddyer is clearly above average.

However, the question again becomes if the team can find similar production (.284/.346/.459) from the RF position without spending $10MM per season over the next few seasons. Not to beat a dead horse, but in my off-season outlook I suggested that the Twins use a platoon of Chris Parmelee and Juan Rivera, because Rivera has always mashed left-handed pitching and not only did Parmelee earn a roster spot by hitting .355/.443/.592 in 21 games in September, but he's posted solid on-base percentages in the high minors and he should also benefit from avoiding left-handed pitching by being used in a platoon.

Now, would Rivera and Parmelee really have a chance to outperform Michael Cuddyer? Rivera, for his career, has hit .289/.335/.495 against left-handed pitching, and he basically matched those numbers in 2011 by hitting .289/.349/.456 again against lefties. If we just assume Cuddyer matches his 2011 season (and as a soon to be 33-year-old that seems generous) than Rivera's .289/.349/.456 line against lefties is exactly on par with Cuddyer's .286/.346/.459 overall line. Cuddyer should get $10MM/year. Rivera likely will sign for less than $1.5MM. Now, of course, Rivera is only half of the platoon, so to at least match Cuddyer's offensive production they'd need Parmelee to post similar numbers against right-handed pitching.

It's beyond unlikely that Parmelee will hit .355/.443/.592 for an entire season, even against mostly right-handed pitching, but a .280/.360/.430 line isn't out of the question. That's not quite as productive as Cuddyer (it's about 2% worse, OPS wise) and Parmelee's defense is likely going to be about as suspect as Cuddyer's was for years, but without the cannon arm. Now, it is worth mentioning that Rivera's defense rates as well above-average, and he would have value as a late-inning replacement defensively in games he didn't start against right handed pitching. Rivera's defensive value against left-handed pitching (when he starts) likely is worth more than the offense will lose from Cuddyer to Parmelee against right-handed pitching.

Parmelee and Rivera would cost the Twins about $2MM for the 2012 season, and Cuddyer signing elsewhere would also give the Twins two more draft picks. The production is likely going to be very similar between a platoon and Cuddyer, so for 1/5 of the cost it should be a no-brainer. Add in that the team could potentially add two very good prospects to a sneaky-good farm system and it really shouldn't even be a decision anymore. Cuddyer has been a model citizen, an entertaining and oftentimes very good player, and he seems to genuinely appreciate being a Twin. But it's important to remember that it is indeed a business first, and the fact is other teams will be able and more willing to offer Michael Cuddyer more money than the Twins should pay. If he signs with the Nationals, the Twins would get the highest possible compensation pick (#16 overall) available. Seems unlikely, but if he's going to leave, that's the number one choice for us Twins fans.