From Romance to Marriage: Cuddyer to Colorado

Amid all the joy around the news that Michael Cuddyer and the Rockies have (reportedly) finally consummated their off-season romance with a three-year contract worth $31.5 million, there is also a keen sense of loss. What will fill the void left in our hearts? What will replace the excitment we have felt over the past few weeks while waiting for hourly updates full of will-they-don’t-they rumors about the former Twin and his high-altitude suitors? All we can really do is move on to cold, heartless analysis: what the Rockies are paying, whether he is likely to be worth it (in terms of on-field performance, there is no doubt this is a win in bromantic terms), how this reflects on the market so far for free-agent outfielders, and how this might play out for the Rockies’ roster.

The free agent market is still working itself out, but assuming an average price of $5 million per marginal win, an annual increase of five percent on that price, and a standard decline rate of one half of a win per season, the Rockies are paying Cuddyer, who will turn 33 in March, as if he will be about a 2.5 WAR player in 2012. That seems about right. Oliver’s current projection for Cuddyer’s offense in 2012 in a neutral environment is for a .344 wOBA. Although that will go up once it is adjusted for his new environment, the value adjust probably cancels that out (in other words, he will be projected to create more runs in Coors, but runs are of less value in Coors relative to other parks because it is an extreme hitter’s park). Over a full season, Cuddyer is probably about 15 runs above average on offense. The fielding is more problematic. Cuddyer was seemingly a bit better in right field (where he seems likely to play for the Rockies) according to UZR in 2011, but a) that was only a one-year sample, and b) a small sample at that because he moved around to fill in for the Twins’ various injuries. For his career (about four seasons worth of innings), he’s been pretty dreadful in right field according to pretty much every metric. Five runs below average is fair at best, and might be generous. After adjusting for position and playing time, 2.5 wins seems about right as a “midpoint” of possible projections. On a simple dollars-per-win level, given the above (tentative) assumptions about the market, the contract looks fair — not good from the team perspective, but not bad, either.

Let’s shift gears. Here are the cumulative 2009-2011 WAR totals of four outfielders:

A: 6.8
B: 7.7
C: 8.5
D: 6.4

Outfielder A is Michael Cuddyer. Outfielder B is Josh Willingham, who signed with the Twins earlier this week for three years and $21 million, probably ending the possibility of Cuddyer returning to Minnesota. This has been analyzed elsewhere. My own brief comment will be that Willingham projects as a substantially better hitter than Cuddyer (around ten runs a season), and while Willingham is pretty bad in the field, I honestly think that he is no worse than Cuddyer, and might be better. The only advantage Cuddyer has on Willingham is his health record, which matters, but I’ll leave it to the readers (and trainers and doctors) to speculate on whether that makes up the difference. The Rockies at least do not lose any picks for signing Cuddyer (although the Twins do gain picks by losing him after offering arbitration).

Outfielder C is David DeJesus, who signed with the Cubs a few weeks ago for two years and about $10 million. Obviously, past performance only partly determines future performance. Moreover, much of DeJesus’ estimated value comes from fielding metrics that are far less reliable than offensive metrics. Still, I am guessing most people would not have guessed that he was more valuable that Cuddyer and Willingham. I also would guess that teams may be over-emphasizing the more recent season’s performance when valuing a player’s likely hitting value. I do think the fielding gap between DeJesus on one hand and Cuddyer and Willingham on the other makes their projected 2012 performance much closer than people think (I would put all three at between two or three WAR).

So who is Outfielder D, the player of the four closest in cumulative WAR (so close that they’ve been of equal value for practical purposes) to Cuddyer over the previous three seasons? Curiously enough, it is the player whose spot Cuddyer may be filling: Seth Smith. I recently posted on Smith’s under-recognized virtues, so I will not go on at length about them here. Summarizing a comparison with Cuddyer: Cuddyer is probably a bit better as a hitter, but Smith is at worst just as “good” in the field. As the previous post points out, Smith’s big platoon split is actually something that can be turned to a team’s advantage if leveraged properly. Finally, Smith is younger, and, more importantly, quite a big cheaper (will probably make just over $2 million in 2012). Even on the most favorable reasonable projected comparison, Cuddyer projects as worth as only one win more than Smith (and I think they are closer than that).

That does not mean that this is a bad deal, necessarily, although along with what other free agent outfielders have made it does cast a bit of a shadow. There may be other moves in the offing — the Rockies have been rumored to be interested in the Braves’ Martin Prado for a while, and if they can turn Smith into Prado, they will fill their hole at third base. However, it remains to be seen if that actually happens.

The Rockies could always leave Smith in right field and play Cuddyer at third base, which would make sense for offense. Cuddyer only played a bit over 100 innings at third in 2010, and only had substantial time at third base in 2005. There is a reason the Twins did not play him there. If the Rockies are not happy with Smith’s fielding in right, then I doubt they are going to like Cuddyer’s fielding at third [INSERT BRAD HAWPE JOKE HERE]. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Michael Cuddyer is a useful-but-overrated player that might have additional appeal to some teams because of his reputation for being a “good clubhouse guy.” He’s been compared to Michael Young, another decent bat and “leader” who fields several positions badly, although that is not how those making the comparison would probably see it. The recent contract is fair in terms of money, but they could have spent less either on the free agent market or taking internal options more seriously. Still, the off-season is not over, and the Rockies may have other moves in mind that will make the deal seem better, if not optimal.

And, yes, I realize that this cold analytic attitude is probably the result of sublimating my heartbreak over the anti-climactic consummation this contract represents. It took me a long time to get over the end of the stream of rumors from Jarrod Washburn’s last free agency, too.

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Eric Dykstra
12 years ago

If Willingham has been better than Cuddyer the last 3 years, even missing substantial time, doesn’t it tip the scales more in Willingham’s favor?

If you assume $4.5m/win (more reasonable than $5m/win based on what we’ve seen so far), Cuddyer looks to have been overpaid, and Willingham underpaid.

So what’s the difference? Positional flexibility? Ability to pitch in a pinch? Even if Cuddyer has a “good clubhouse guy” reputation, it’s not as if Josh Willingham is a terrible guy.

cable fixer
12 years ago
Reply to  Eric Dykstra

while i agree with your conclusion that willingham is underpaid, you’re confusing being a “bad” guy with being a bad clubhouse guy. those are two distinct topics and you’re viewing them as one. also, not to trash josh willingham because most charity is inherently good, but the current tax code incentivizes foundations like this.

still, it’s a good question.