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The Cuddyer Ford Kubel Quagmire

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Let the battle begin...

This much we know:  it's a 3-man race.  No matter what our personal feelings on the matter may be, Shannon Stewart will be starting in left field on opening day.  In center field there isn't much of an argument to be made, as Torii Hunter begins his quest for a 23rd consecutive Gold Glove.  Right field, however...yeah.  About right field...

Embattled mainstay Jacque Jones is out, but in spite of the frustrations he inspired, his offensive output was still more than you got from Cuddyer and Ford.

Name     Games   AVG   HR   RBI   OPS
Jones     142   .249   23    73  .757
Ford      147   .264    7    45  .715
Cuddyer   126   .263   12    42  .752

Certainly not the most overwhelming statistics for anyone.  Yet I wouldn't have had either Ford or Cuddyer replacing Jones, even with Cuddyer's prettier splits versus southpaws.

But the incumbent is gone, and the competition is now open.  With each of the three candidates you have three optimistic viewpoints.  For Lew you're going to get solid if not inspiring play in nearly all categories.  His defense is passable, he has control over his bat, and he brings a degree of speed to the lineup.  With Cuddyer you're bringing to the lineup a promise of potential unfulfilled.  For years the Twins organization has been high on Cuddy and there's no sign they're planning on shutting him out any time soon.  In right field he'll have the ability to show off his cannon (remember the cannon v. guided missle conversation?), and at the plate he has the potential to be an offensive force.  Then there's Kubel, coming off surgery, who is still regarded as not only one of the best hitting prospects to come through the system in recent years, but also as a more than solid defensive prospect.

As spring training begins to tell it's tales of fortune, let's speculate with the information we presently have in-hand.

Michael Cuddyer

Cuddyer will turn 27 the week before opening day, and the good news is that he's not trying a new position.  The bad news is, he's switching his primary role for the third time in as many seasons.  He's played first base, second base, third base, left field, right field and has hit as a designated hitter on occasion.  In 2006, he's moving back to right field, where he made most of his appearances in 2002 and 2003.

Earlier I alluded to the strength of Cuddyer's arm, but this isn't the only positive we could get from Cuddyer in right field.  Over the course of his career, his play in right has been the most solid of any position he's played.  Admittedly there are small sample sizes, but compare Cuddyer's Zone Rating between right field and third base over the years.  An 80-point differential is pretty substantial.

Year      3B    RF
2002    .917  .852
2003    .727  .852
2004    .741  .857
2005    .780  .865
Career  .774  .856

Offensively it's a bit of a crap-shoot.  He's always had the ability to make contact or put the ball in the seats, but it's the discipline that's lacking.  Often times he seems to be unsure of what's coming, and it appeared that pitchers knew that about him.  Now, entering his sixth year at the Major League level and with over 760 at-bats the last two seasons, there aren't anymore excuses for underachieving.  He's not expected to be a superstar, just solid.  Given the chance, I'm optimistic for a better offensive line from Cuddy in 2006.

He played in the Futures game of 1999.  He hit 30 homers in New Britain in 2001.  He was rated by Baseball America as one of the Top-100 prospects in the game for three consecutive years and the best prospect in the Twins' system in 1999 and 2000.  He can do it, but this might be his final chance in a Twins uniform.

Lew Ford

LLLLLLEEEEEEEEWWWWWWW!!!  Between tripping over the bag and bunting a ball into his face, Ford has built himself a solid fan base that isn't limited solely to his statistic line.  During the offseason, he was my pick to start in right field until Jason Kubel was ready.  But the more I read and the more I see, the more I realize Ford could be the dark horse in this race.

Over the past two seasons, the outfield position Lew has played the least is right field.  As similar as outfield positions may seem, it's still about familiarity, and this is one area where I thought Lew had the advantage.  Seeing him out there on so many occasions led me to believe he had played in right field more than he has, which led me to believe he was more familiar with the position than he may be.  Check out his games by position.

Year   LF   CF   RF
2004   81   46   10
2005   18   63   16

His speed gives him range, and there's no one that's going to doubt his tenacity and willingness to give himself up to make an out.  Armstrength, however, is an issue when compared to Kubel and Cuddyer, who both have stronger arms than Ford.

At the plate he may be the most predictable in terms of what you're going to get from him, in spite of a (hopefully) sub-par 2005.  He's a contact hitter who has the ability to push and especially pull the ball, and he's a solid bunter as well.  He has gap power, and his hustle allows him to take an extra base and steal a few.  Given the opportunity I'd like to think he could return to the form of 2004 (.299/.381/.446/.827), but I'd settle for somewhere in between that and last year.  (Say .277/.365/.415/.780)

Jason Kubel

Coming off knee surgery, it seems every week there are conflicting reports.  One week it's said he'll be ready for opening day, one week says it'll be mid-July, one week says don't hold your breath for 2006 and one week says his leg had been replaced by a breakfast loaf but then was eaten by Tony Batista so now it's olive loaf because Batista doesn't like olives and the meat paste reminds him of balogna.

Year   Age   Level     AB   2B   HR   AVG   OPS
2000   18    Rookie    78    3    0  .282  .739
2001   19    Rookie   124   10    1  .331  .922
2002   20    A        424   26   17  .321  .901
2003   21    A        420   20    5  .298  .761
2004   22    AA       138   14    6  .377 1.120
2004   22    AAA      350   28   16  .343  .958
2004   22    MLB       60    2    1  .300  .791

There really isn't a lot you can find that doesn't make you say "Wow...this kid could really be something..."

In spite of his injury, the 24-year old Kubel is still rated the as the second-best prospect in the Twins system by Baseball America behind Fransisco Liriano.  He's also rated as "best hitter for average" and "best strike-zone discipline".  Scouts have been quoted as saying he can hit to all fields "with authority".

Defensively he's more than solid, as he was named "Best Outstanding Arm" by Florida State League managers in a poll.  If you're looking to judge his overall performance, he was named MLN Minor League Player of the Year in 2004.

As for his health, there are a few notes.  One, on February 8th the Associated Press reported the Twins signed Kubel to a contract.  Two, MLB.com reported late in January that Kubel was cleared to practice sans knee brace.  In spite of falling on it at TwinsFest, the knee is allegedly okay.  But, once again, reality check:  CBS sportsline indicates Kubel's knee may not be ready for the spring (dated February 2).  John Sickels rates Kubel as the Twins' sixth-best prospect with a 'B' rating, but qualifies this by stating that should the knee be healthy he's probaby an 'A-'.  Finally, Terry Ryan has indicated that Kubel will likely start the season at Rochester as they continue to rehabilitate his knee and torn ACL.

What we saw from Kubel in his cup o' coffee in 2004 was mostly positive.  There were flashes of power and great form, and there were moments where all you could do was shrug your shoulders and sigh "eh...rookies", as though we could have done better.  Many fans and many within the organization wait on baited breath to see if the potential will be fulfilled.

Kubel will begin 2006 as a member of the Red Wings, but the moment he's ready I'm not sure there's anything the players above him can do about it.  If he's healthy, it's full speed ahead.

Conclusions

Over the course of the year, it's a 3-man race.  For opening day, it looks like it's between Michael Cuddyer and Lew Ford.  Knowing the organization's steadfast belief in Cuddybear, I have to believe he'll win the spot out of spring training.  He plays better in the outfield, defensively and offensively.

As for Lew, my pipe dreams include him in left field.  But that's a whole other issue...