Twins lose Cuddyer to RockiesStart with this premise: The Minnesota Twins are better off as a franchise moving forward with Josh Willingham than Michael Cuddyer, and that takes into account everything Cuddyer meant on and off the field.
By: Joe Christensen, Minneapolis Star Tribune
MINNEAPOLIS — Start with this premise: The Minnesota Twins are better off as a franchise moving forward with Josh Willingham than Michael Cuddyer, and that takes into account everything Cuddyer meant on and off the field.
Willingham is practically a Cuddyer clone — same age, a similar righthanded hitter, comparable outfield skills and by all reports a good guy — and Willingham’s three-year, $21 million deal will save the Twins about $3 million per year compared to what the Rockies will be paying Cuddyer.
The Twins lose Cuddyer’s versatility and the insurance he gave them at first base, but his departure gives them two compensatory picks between No. 31 and No. 65 in next June’s draft.
All that said, the lineup still has a serious lack of power, which is why the Twins continued pursuing Cuddyer until he agreed to his reported three-year, $30 million deal with Colorado on Friday.
And this is why they intensified efforts to re-sign Jason Kubel once Cuddyer’s intentions became clear.
General Manager Terry Ryan said the team’s top priority is adding pitching — both starting and relief — but said, “If Jason Kubel ultimately lands here, somehow, some way, we’ve got to be open to that.”
At 29, Kubel is three years younger than Willingham and Cuddyer. Like them, Kubel’s outfield range is limited, but the Twins could stick him in right field, allowing Willingham to play left field, where he’s more comfortable; 94 percent of the innings Willingham has played defensively in the majors have come
“My comfort level for right field is not great right now,” Willingham said Friday. “I played (35) games there in ’09, that’s all the experience I’ve had. ... I’m not really worried about playing right field that much because I know I’m going to get a lot of work prior to the season.”
The Twins have options. They could use Willingham in left, Ben Revere in center and Denard Span in right field, where he thrived in 2008.
But Span, Revere, Jamey Carroll, Alexi Casilla and Joe Mauer — five members of the projected lineup — combined to hit seven homers last year. The Twins can say they are tailoring themselves for cavernous Target Field, but opposing pitchers would fight for chances to pitch to a punchless lineup like that.
The Twins are confident that Willingham will adequately replace Cuddyer’s righthanded power. But adding Kubel would give them another lefty at a time when they are not sure what to expect from Mauer and Justin Morneau. And even if Mauer and Morneau rebound from their injury-plagued 2011 seasons, Kubel’s power would be a needed plus.
Kubel played in the Twins’ first 53 games last year, batting .310 with a .355 on-base percentage and .465 slugging percentage. On May 30, he twisted his left foot trying to make a leaping catch, and he was never the same after that. In three previous seasons (2008-10), Kubel hit at least 20 homers.
The injury undoubtedly hurt his value on the free-agent market. The Indians are among the teams interested, but there hasn’t been much buzz around him. Friday, a person familiar with Kubel’s situation said several teams have called in recent days, including the Twins.
The Twins have wisely added players with high career on-base percentages in Carroll (.356), Ryan Doumit (.334) and Willingham (.361).
In 136 games last season with Oakland, Willingham had career highs of 29 home runs and 98 RBIs, but his batting average dipped to .246, his OBP fell to .332 and he whiffed in 27 percent of his plate appearances (150 in 563). He also understood his role on an Athletics team starving for home runs.
“I knew I was looked upon to bring some power and some thump to that lineup,” he said. “I think I’m at my best, offensively, when I’m going deep into some counts and working some walks and seeing a lot of pitches. I got away from that a little bit last year.”
With Willingham making $7 million next year, the Twins’ current 2012 payroll projection is $96 million. That leaves $4 million of wiggle room if they try to open the season at $100 million. But insiders say Ryan was willing to ask ownership to push past that number for Cuddyer, so there’s definitely some flexibility.
In coming days, the Twins will weigh their pitching needs against Kubel’s asking price as his market finally takes shape. They will lose Cuddyer, but if they get Willingham, Kubel and two draft picks, they will really come out ahead.
Joe Christensen covers Major League Baseball for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.