Let's jump in our time machines and travel back to the off season between 2011 and 2012. Or just use your memory; that's probably easier. 2011 was a big disappointment; after a hot start, the Rockies performed a long slow fade through the rest of the year. Jorge de la Rosa's arm went kablooie in May, every acquisition disappointed, and Ty Wigginton got 446 at bats. They threw in the towel at the trade deadline and shipped Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. In the four seasons from 2007 through 2010, the Rockies had 3 winning years. Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki were coming off huge, healthy years (well, Tulo missed a month, but what else is new). The rotation looked really solid after Ubaldo's huge 2010, and Jhoulys Chacin, Jason Hammel, and de la Rosa were coming back. But the worst case scenario happened and the Rockies stumbled to a 73 and 89 record.
Anyway, I don't mean to dredge up bad memories, but that sets the context for the 2012 off season. 2011 was a disappointing year, but it felt like an outlier. The core was still intact and the under-performers were mostly jettisoned. The pitching was going to be a question mark, but the front office wanted one more consistent offensive performer. So they went a-knocking on Michael Cuddyer's front door (or called his agent, whatever).
The terms: 3 years, $31.5M, the biggest contract the Rockies had ever given a position player from outside the organization. The Rockies hoped they were acquiring a durable, consistent veteran to plug into right field for the departing Seth Smith, and possibly as a Helton replacement down the road. He was to be another legitimate threat in the lineup behind Cargo and Tulo. His last three years in Minnesota were pretty good; Cuddyer averaged 636 plate appearances and a 116 wRC+.
So naturally, 2012 was a debacle. He only managed 394 PA and a 101 wRC+ (in other words, 1 percent better than an average hitter) while fighting an oblique injury. Defensive metrics rated him poorly in the outfield, and as a result he managed only 0.7 WAR. Not a great return on 10 million dollars. Man, 2012 sucked.
2013 was a different story though, as Cuddyer's bat returned with a vengeance. At 34 he put up the best offensive season of his career, accruing a triple slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .331/.389/.530, good for a 140 wRC+. He hit nearly as well on the road as he did at home, too (148 wRC+ home, 136 road). This was far better than anyone had any right to expect from Cuddyer when he signed. Any rational person would laugh you out of the building if you told them that Cuddyer would win the batting title in 2013, but baseball is often not a rational sport.
He still missed a little bit of time with a neck injury, so he only appeared in 130 games. Obviously, we know that he played enough to qualify for the batting title.
Here's the thing though, and don't quote me on this, but baseball players have to do more stuff than just hit (in the National League at any rate). They also have to play defense and run the bases and do magic tricks. Unfortunately, by most measures, Cuddyer was pretty lousy at one of those things.
Fangraphs, which uses the metric Ultimate Zone Rating to measure defense, believed Cuddyer was perfectly average at first base. But he only logged 109 innings at first. He played 992 innings in right field, where UZR just flat out did not like him. At -13.4 runs below average, he cost the Rockies nearly a win and a half with his glove (though to be more accurate, it was his legs that held him back; his range was terrible). Defensive Runs Saved (Baseball Reference's metric) had him at -16 runs on the year. And Cuddyer isn't one of those guys like Dexter Fowler or Carlos Gonzalez who passes the eye test; he looks like a bit of a galoot out there.
|Michael Cuddyer - 2013||130||540||20||74||84||10||8.50%||18.50%||0.382||0.331||0.389||0.53||0.396||140||1.1||25.6||-18.5||2.5||2|
It feels weird to give a guy with a batting line that pretty less than an A-, but I think the defensive issues are too substantial. When you play one of the easiest positions, and play it that poorly, you're going to lose a lot of value. Cuddyer ended up being that offensive rock the front office was looking for; unfortunately, it wasn't enough to pull the team out of the NL West cellar.
Michael Cuddyer will head into his 35 year old season feeling pretty good about himself. It's the last year on his contract with the Rockies, and he'll be looking to position himself to pick up another big deal.
Rockies owner Dick Monfort indicated in a letter to season ticket holders that Cuddyer will probably be predominantly a first baseman in 2014 (barring the acquisition of a first baseman). This is a wise move. His defense in the outfield is pretty consistently terrible, while he's probably neutral at first. He ought to pick up some value simply by virtue of playing a position that requires less range.
Offensively, I see no scenario where he doesn't regress in 2014. It's one thing to have the best season of your career at age 34; repeating it is whole different can of pine tar. Cuddyer's line was buoyed by a .382 BABIP, 3rd highest in the Majors. I'll give you 100 to 1 odds that goes down next year.
The question is how much the offense will decline. Cuddyer's at that age where decline can strike swiftly. Steamer, a projection system on the Fangraphs player page, predicts he'll hit .290/.351/.494, which seems pretty reasonable to me. That's still a very respectable line, and would be a pretty significant upgrade over Todd Helton's 2013.
Cuddyer will have to have a very good (ie, 3 WAR or better) 2014 to make his deal a win for the Rockies. Injuries and bad defense have limited his contributions to the team. Nevertheless, Cuddyer has been a consummate professional during his time with the Rockies. He's been fun to watch, and hopefully he'll contribute to a winning year for the 2014 squad.