Thursday, November 12, 2009

Seagulling the Michael Cuddyer Option

I’m not convinced that extending Michael Cuddyer was as heinous a decision as’s Rob Neyer made it out to be.  Without a doubt, Neyer raises some good points.  Neyer recognizes the face value problem of extending a 32-year-old, he examines the piece not the whole.  The organization is committing $10 million dollars to an aged player -- one that has already exited his peak playing years -- and is likely to see his offensive numbers decline while, at best, hoping his defense does not decline further from 2009 (where he could have been swapped out for an ottoman with a negligible difference).  Where this troubles me is that Neyer stops short of offering any useful solutions or viable alternatives.  In the corporate world, we refer to this as "seagull management" - where you fly in, dump on everything and then leave without offering anything constructive.

Committing to Cuddyer for 2011 goes against every fiber in my body when it comes to team-building.  Typically, 30-somethings should be traded for younger talent after they have career years, and Cuddyer's 124 OPS+ season very much qualifies as such.  However the current crop of free agent outfielders is far too deep for the Twins to extract promising players in addition to the fact that trading Cuddyer leaves the Twins scrambling for a viable third and fourth outfielder for 2010.  Hypothetically, even if you do trade him now for Javier Vazquez of the Braves, the current class of free agents does not have a legitimate right-handed hitting replacement that is not miscast as a outfield while they should be DHing.   

There are a few things that Cuddyer does well that is not easily replaced:  

  • Crushing left-handed pitching has been one of his biggest contributions since coming up in 2001.  His platoon splits are 70 OPS points higher when facing lefties (.848 OPS) in slightly over 1,000 plate appearances.  This past season, 15 of his 51 hits off of lefties cleared the fence - an amazing 29% home run rate - while producing an OPS over 1000.  
  • Cuddyer's power, in general, is outstanding.  According to, 13 of his 32 home runs were of the "No Doubt" variety (40.6%).  This total placed him tied for third among some of the league's most prolific home run hitters in Mark Teixiera, Carlos Pena and Miguel Cabrera.  The average hitter typically hits 18% No Doubt home runs and Cuddyer has exceeded that.  People will point to his 15.5 HR/FB rate as an indicator that he's due to drop off in total but because of the sheer force, it is easy to suggest that Cuddyer is capable of generating 30+ home runs in 2010 and 2011.  
  • While his defensive coverage is shaky, Cuddyer still has a strong arm that keeps runners from advancing.  In 2009, just 41% of baserunners took the opportunity to sneak an extra base on Cuddyer.  This was by far the worst rate of his career but comparatively, free agent outfielders Jermaine Dye and Marlon Byrd allowed a 55% and 62% extra base rate respectively.  Even though Cuddyer's range isn't spectacular, his arm keeps runners from sliding up a base. 

Presented with the alternatives, the Twins had to move forward with Cuddyer in 2010, particularly if they wanted to be a playoff team that plays in the ALCS.  Which brings me to the decision-making necessary for exercising the $10.5 million dollar option for 2011.  

The dollar has been almighty in Minnesota for the past two decades and the $10 million marker appears to be a significant milestone because the club is limited to just a select few VIP members (Brad Radke, Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau).  It seemed exclusive to guys who were All Star, Cy Young and MVP-caliber players - which does not seem to fit the bill for Cuddyer.  However, Cuddyer's predecessors were paid during a time when $10 million was a substantial chuck of the pie:  

  • Radke's $10.75 million in 2004 was 20 percent of the payroll. 
  • Santana's $13 million in 2007 was 18.2 percent of the payroll.  
  • Hunter's $10.75 million in 2006 then $12 million in 2007 constituted 16.3 and 16.8 percent respectively.  
  • Morneau's $11 million in 2009 ate up 16.3 percent of the 2009 payroll.
  • Mauer's $10.5 million in 2009 garnered 16.1 percent of the 2009 wages.  

With Target Field's revenue stream expected to bump the payroll to $90 million, Cuddyer's $10 million suddenly represents just a 8.5 percent payroll allocation.  Hardly the same level of financial commitment made during the Metrodome's era.  Had this same situation presented itself several years ago, Cuddyer would be testing free agent waters without hesitation or apology.  The payroll paradigm has shifted and has given the Twins more flexibility -- the $7 million salary range is now the $10 million dollar salary range.  In short, what once viewed as a full-size is now a mid-size.  

Where exactly does Neyer think Cuddyer's replacement is coming from in 2011?  What the organization projected as it analyzed the 2010-2011 offseason free agent landscape was that Michael Cuddyer could very well be at the top of the class.  Naturally, the Twins could forge their way into the free agent market following 2010 and land either one of two premium outfielders in Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth.  Crawford’s pristine defense and solid contributions with the bat has pushed his price tag upwards of 5 years with an average annual value of $15 million, that is, if he hasn't already been traded and signed a new contract with his new team at that point.  Werth’s 2009 season meanwhile proved that he is more than a platoon player, as previously believe.  As a full-time player he smashed 36 home runs, tied for 8th highest in baseball, while supplying above-average defense in right field.  If Werth matches this contribution in the final year of his two-year, $10 million deal with Philly, he is certain to get a contract worth more than $10 million per year, most likely from the Phillies to retain him.  Even if either is available, both should achieve multi-year deals that would conflict with the internal development of Aaron Hicks or Ben Revere.  

So with Crawford and Werth effectively erased from the whiteboard, the rest of the leftovers have turned sour.  There is what is sure to be the 37 year old remains of Jermaine Dye.  Even the White Sox realized that Dye's defense has long been detrimental and, with the exception of pounding a few balls over the fence, is only good as a base-clogger (27 home runs and 19 doubles in '09).  Yes, he could be had at a reduced rate but there is little ROI potential. Chicago bought him out rather than fork over $12 million in 2010 for a performance which is sure to fall well short in value.  

The Twins could enlist Marcus Thames' service. Thames will be a spry 34 years old in 2011.  While he might be good for a dozen jack-shots at a TJ Maxx price, the Tigers limited his reps in the outfield and haven't given him more than 350 plate appearances since 2006 (which, coincidentally, was the last time he was actual worth more than a replacement level player).  With another season to age, Thames might not even be able to bring the power that gives him his limited value.  After Dye and Thames, the list degenerates into your role playing types in Frank Catalanattos, Austin Kearns and Jody Geruts of the world. 

What about letting Cuddyer go and trying some internal options?  In reality, the Twins do not have anyone capable of immediately replacing Cuddyer nor a sure bet in 2011 either.  There are players on the cusp but needless to say there are a lot of 'ifs'.  Rene Tosoni emerged as a power and on-base threat in New Britain, hitting .271/.360/.454 with 15 home runs in 490 plate appearances.  As a left-handed hitter, Tosoni still hasn't demonstrated that he can handle left-handed pitching (.183/.285/.302 in 126 at bats in 2009) lending credence that he would require at minimum another year of seasoning before considering advancement to the majors.  Even if Tosoni has a follow-up breakout season splitting time in AA and AAA, his addition would be yet another left-handed bat in the midst of a very left-leaning lineup.  

Another potential candidate would be 23-year-old David Winfree.  Despite showing some pop from the right-side of the plate, Winfree has had three consecutive seasons in which his on-base percentage has been sub-.320.  From 2008 to 2009, his walk rate dropped from 8.2% to 6.1% as he moved from AA to AAA, not quite an affirmation of a MLB-ready hitter.  While progress in that department in 2010 will inspire some questions regarding the decision to pick up Cuddyer's option yet Winfree is far from a sure thing. 

The Twins made the right decision while attempting to construct a championship team. The money isn't as appalling as it once seemed thanks to new revenue streams.  The replacement options on the free market is less appealing while the internal options need another year in the oven.  Injuries and a downhill slide on defense can quickly turn this move from a positive to a negative as would a degeneration in his offensive output but with all of the facts today, ditching Cuddyer in 2011 would have created a problem, not solved one.