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Prospect Retrospective: The career of Michael Cuddyer

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This article about the retirement of Michael Cuddyer by Phil Miller in the Minneapolis Star Tribune got me thinking about, well, Michael Cuddyer. As a prospect follower and a Twins fan he's an interesting case of player development and how it can be non-linear. Here's a look at what Cuddyer was like as a prospect and how his career looks in historical context.

Michael Cuddyer was a first round pick in 1997, out of high school in Chesapeake, Virginia. The ninth-overall choice, he was a high school shortstop who projected to move over to third base, where his power hitting skills were expected to play well. He signed late and didn't make his pro debut until 1998, but his first season was a success, as he hit .276/.364/.451 with 61 walks, 37 doubles, and 12 homers for Fort Wayne in the Midwest League. This was a strong debut and he rated as a Grade B+ prospect at the time.

Moved up to the Florida State League in '99, he had an even stronger campaign in a more difficult environment, hitting .298/.403/.470 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, dropping his slash line to .263/.351/.394. 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. Park effects were at least part of the reason; New Britain was very tough for power hitters at the time, but he didn't hit for power on the road, either.  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. At the time Restovich was almost as well-regarded as Cuddyer.

Cuddyer returned to New Britain in 2001 and was much better, hitting .301/.351/.560 with 30 homers. 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 not hitting terrifically 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 through 2005, Cuddyer was a .260/.330/.428 hitter. He was about to turn 27 in 2006, and at that point he was considered a decent role player but also a disappointment.

Age 27 is a stereotypical year for a breakout and Cuddyer did just that, hitting .284/.362/.504 with 41 doubles and 24 homers. That turned out to be the best year of his career in fWAR terms at 3.2, and the second-best season of his career offensively. He began fighting injuries in his late 20s and his defense declined with age.

All told, Cuddyer hit .277/.344/.461 over 15 seasons. He was generally solid but, within the power-hitting context of the steroid era, he was just an above-average hitter, not an excellent one, posting a career wRC+ of 112 and an OPS+ of 113. The advanced metrics hated his glove late in his career but he did offer versatility, seeing substantial action at  right field, third base, first base, and even some at second.

For historical context, Sim Score comparables are Rondell White, Jackie Jensen, Kevin McReynolds, Brian Jordan, Cliff Floyd, Marlon Byrd, Carl Everett, Sid Gordon, Hank Bauer, and Richie Zisk. There are no superstars there, but no bums either. Perhaps Cuddyer didn't completely fulfill early expectations, but he was a valuable player.