Random Thoughts on Mike Cuddyer
It's a good time to be a Twins fan. Although they didn't make the post-season this year, they still have a solid team, and considering the depth of talent in the farm system, they should remain competitive for the long haul. Of course, there are always things you can complain about, and one of the recent disappointments is the failure of Mike Cuddyer to turn into a star.
Some history first. Cuddyer was a first round pick in 1997, out of high school in Chesapeake, Virginia. He signed late and didn't make his pro debut until 1998, but his first season was a success, as he hit .276 with 61 walks, 37 doubles, and 12 homers for Fort Wayne in the Midwest League. Moved up to the Florida State League in '99, he had a stronger campaign in a more difficult environment, hitting .298 with 16 homers and 76 walks. He cut his strikeout rate slightly, increased his walk rate substantially, and showed very good power in a difficult park/league environment. Scouts also praised his defensive improvement at third base, raved about his work ethic and makeup, and projected more power in the future. I gave him a Grade A- heading into 2000.
Cuddyer's Double-A transition went poorly. He hit .263, but with just six homers, his power short-circuiting for no apparent reason. His defense also stumbled, as footwork problems reduced his range. He also had a problem with inaccurate throws. Scouts still praised his work ethic and he never gave up, but something sure seemed wrong. It's interesting to note that Cuddyer wasn't the only prospect who took a step backward in the Twins system that year: Mike Restovich's homer output went from 19 in '99 to just eight in '00.
Cuddyer looked a lot better during spring training in 2001, earning a promotion to Triple-A, where he blossomed. He knocked 30 homers, drew 75 walks, hit .301, and slugged .560. His defense improved a bit, but with Corey Koskie still manning third base, the Twins decided that Cuddyer would move to right field for 2002, getting his power into the lineup. At this time, I was quite high on him, giving him a Grade A- and expecting him to contend for Rookie of the Year. A lot of other people agreed.
'02 was a disappointment for anyone who invested in Cuddyer. He split the year between Triple-A and the majors, playing great at Edmonton (.309/.379/.594) in 86 games, but struggling a bit in his major league time, hitting .259/.311/.429 in 41 games. He wasn't terrible, but he was far from outstanding. His strike zone judgment, excellent in the minors, was less impressive in the Show, which is a common occurrence when a guy gets his first shot. He did OK defensively, where he showed a strong outfield arm, although he didn't run the best routes, a symptom of his inexperience at the position. Nevertheless, I was still confident that he'd be a good player.
Cuddyer opened 2003 as the favorite in right field. He showed excellent defensive improvement in the outfield, but hit poorly in spring training. Ron Gardenhire ended up setting a rotation system in right field, Cuddyer sharing playing time with Dustin Mohr and Bobby Kielty. Not unexpectedly, Cuddyer couldn't get into a consistent rhythm with erratic playing time, and ended up getting sent back to Triple-A in May. The Twins started using him at second base after his demotion, seeing him as a possible replacement for the disappointing Luis Rivas. Unfortunately, Cuddyer pulled a hamstring in early May and ended up on the DL for two whole months. He came back up in September, and ended the year with a .245/.325/.431 line.
The Twins used Cuddyer as a super utility guy in 2004, playing him at first, second, third, and the outfield. Injuries were an issue again, with several different ache and pains, particularly a bulging disc in his neck. He held the same role in '05: third base, right field, second base, first base.
His numbers in '04 and '05 were virtually identical. In 993 career at-bats, Cuddyer is a .260/.330/.428 hitter. He turns 27 in 2006, and at this point it is hard to see him developing into a star.
So, what happened here? Why didn't Cuddyer turn into a .280/.350/.500 hitter? Injuries have been a major issue. He has had constant problems with his hamstring, neck, back, wrists, ribs, and knees. He plays through it, but it is hard to believe that the injuries have not had an impact. Visually, at least, his bat does not look as quick as it did a couple of years ago.
This is subjective, but let me describe what I see when I watch Cuddyer hit. A lot of times, he looks like he's barely missing killing the ball, like he's almost there. This could be a result of the injuries. . .he's not 100% physically, or even 90%, and it's slowing his bat just a tad. Another possibility is that perhaps his vision isn't quite as good as it should be, and that he's just not seeing the ball as well as he should. If I were the Twins, I'd have his vision checked.
Sabermetrically, he might be a player who simply topped out at age 25, and that he's as good now as he will ever be. That's not bad per se. He does have some pop, and his ability to play several positions is an asset, even if he's not a gold glove at any of them.
I'm wondering if perhaps there is an organization/player mismatch here. The Twins seem to prefer line drive hitters who make contact and don't worry too much about the strike zone. Cuddyer is more of a power/patience guy, and perhaps his style of play just doesn't mesh well with the way the Twins coach.
My thinking is that Cuddyer is going to stay at this level of effectiveness as long as he is a Twin, with some increase in power production as he enters his late 20s, but no huge performance spikes. Switching to a different team and having a change of scenery could result in a larger performance spike. Better health will also help.
Poll question in the comments thread.