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What's Next for Michael Cuddyer?

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Almost a year ago to the day, we asked the same question about Jason Kubel.  In his second of a three-year contract, his offensive production in question and the competition in the outfield, now seems like a good time to glance into the crystal ball and try to see through the fog.

The contract that Michael Cuddyer signed in January of 2008 was based on the career year he had in 2006.  Now two full seasons removed from that year, and being rewarded for it, the hopes for Cuddyer's offensive revival have never been higher.

Looking at 2007, the single biggest difference in his actual performance was his reduction in the ratio of fly balls that turned into home runs.  In his career year of '06, 15.7% of his fly balls were homers, and that's pretty good; in '07 that number dropped to 9.9%, which is a bit below average (and the lowest rate of his career at that point).  It's a huge swing.  There were definitely other mitigating factors (that nagging thumb thing, for instance), but walk rates, strikeout rates, fly ball percentages, on-base percentage...none of those things drastically changed.  His line drive percentage dropped a bit as well, although it merely went from "good" to "average", which is basically telling me that Cuddyer just wasn't hitting the ball as hard as he was the year prior.  Could all of that be due to his thumb?  I don't have the answer, but it's plausible.

Over the course of the busiest Twins off-season in recent memory, the organization rewarded Cuddyer for his hard work and his numbers in 2006 with a three-year, $24 million dollar contract.  It was a deal that not only showed fans that the team was committed to keeping its talent together after losing a pair of franchise names in a manner of weeks, but it was a deal that stated the organization's belief that the "real" Cuddyer was closer to the career-year version than any other version we'd seen to that point.

Which of course means that Cuddyer couldn't have picked a worse year to be nicked up, and to give the worst performance of his career.  In spite of the injuries to his finger and his foot last summer, those peripheral stats we just discussed tell the same story as they did in '07.  He walked a little bit less, but the line drive rates were back over 20%, and his flyball and ground ball rates were consistent with how he'd been hitting the ball the last few years.  Unfortunately, the ratio of fly balls hit over the fence dropped again...from 9.9%, to a shocking 4.3%.  For reference, that's worse than Alexi Casilla, Carlos Gomez, Denard Span, Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris...but the point is that a corner outfielder, especially one making $8 million per year, should be able to out-power all of those guys.  Once again, there's some question as to how much of this performance is due to his injuries.

It's hard to determine which factor will be shadowing Cuddyer in 2009:  the contract, or the competition.  Tim Dierkes (of MLB Trade Rumors fame) listed Cuddyer on the 45 Worst Contracts In Baseball piece that he did for the Spring Training '09 site, and right now it's hard to dispute.  Considering the return on the investment to this point, and the percentage of team payroll that $8 million constitutes, it's a legitimate listing.  Fortunately, putting on a good show this summer would put that kind of criticism to rest.  Or at least quiet it down a bit.  Then there's the Gomez/Span/Delmon Young triangle, and none of them are going anywhere.

As hard to believe as it is, considering how many years he's been with the team, 2009 will only be Michael's age-30 season.  He's still in his prime, and he's a smart player who will be given plenty of opportunity to get his career back on track.  Of course, that's just what I think.  What do the Oracles think?

Oracle

AB

H

2B

HR

BB

SO

Avg

Obp

Slg

Bill James

416

113

26

12

46

83

.272

.351

.435

CHONE

482

127

27

14

55

99

.263

.345

.419

Marcel

355

95

20

10

39

72

.268

.346

.425

Oliver

257

67

14

8

26

52

.263

.335

.426

None of them are very optimistic, which is to be expected with Cuddyer's recent history.  PECOTA also plays the realist card with a .261/.336/.423 weighted line, with 11 homers and 22 doubles.

No matter what happens, at some point during the coming season there will be criticism aimed at our incumbant right fielder.  That contract and the other guys will be applying their own pressures, and fans will apply plenty of their own.  And if he struggles this season, and I genuinely hope he doesn't, nobody will be putting more pressure on Cuddyer than Cuddyer himself.

With a wish of good luck and a tip of the cap to our dearest Cuddles, here are PECOTA's top ten comps for the outfield magician...

Ellis Burks, 1994:  After a good bounceback years with the White Sox in '93, Burks spent a good portion of his first season with the Rockies on the disabled list.  In just 42 games, Burks hit .322/.388/.678.

Leon Roberts, 1981:  In his last decent offensive season, at age 30, Roberts posted a 126 OPS+ in 72 games with the Rangers.  Is there a trend for partial seasons cropping up here?

Glenallen Hill, 1995:  As a full-time player for the Giants, Hill's power is what made him useful in '95.  I'd take 24 bombs from Cuddyer this year, no problem.

Jeffrey Hammonds, 2001:  After a career year in Colorado (shocker), Hammonds' first year in Milwaukee saw him appear in just 49 games, posting an OPS+ of 91.  There is definitely a trend for partial seasons appearing.

Bill Renna, 1955:  In 100 games for the Kansas City Athletics, Renna hit .213/.305/.349.  Ouch.

Eric Byrnes, 2006:  With the Diamondbacks for the first time, his power is what made him a useful player--37 doubles and 26 home runs.  His OPS+ was still just 96, but at least he played in 143 games.

Barry Bonnell, 1984:  A mediocre offensive player at best, Bonnell's .709 OPS in 110 games isn't in Cuddyer's favor.  Two years later he was out of the league.

Benny Agbayani, 2002:  Remember this guy?  Great two years in '97 and '98 with the Mets, but hit just .227/.298/.344 in 154 at-bats between Colorado and Boston in his last season in the majors in '02.  Ish.

Jermaine Dye, 2004:  In his last year with the A's, Dye hit .265/.329/.464 in 137 games.  He hasn't performed worse than that since, but I could see Cuddyer doing something like this; perhaps with a slightly higher OBP and a slightly lower SLG.

Shane Spencer, 2002:  A weak spot in the Yankee batting order, Spencer's OPS+ of 86 in 94 games would be unacceptable from Cuddyer.  He has to perform better than this.