As reported in the Star Tribune, the Twins picked up Michael Cuddyer's option for 2011 (Yes, you read that right. 2011. It's an interesting clause in his contract). Predictably, ESPN's Rob Neyer jumped all over the decision:
No, the difference between Cuddyer's salary and his value is not a great deal of money. But the Twins have a history of overspending on decent players while complaining about the high price of truly great players. Remember, it was just a year ago that they couldn't afford Johan Santana but quite happily blew $9 million on Craig Monroe and Livan Hernandez. And if they're not able to keep Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer in the long term, their money mismanagement is simply going to drop them from contention.
Fangraphs' Jack Moore wasn't impressed, either:
It’s very hard for a team to compete when paying a starting player 10.5 million dollars to contribute less than 1 win. It’s even harder for a team in the economic condition that the Twins are. This move seems more like an appeal to the fans rather than an attempt to build a winning team. The better way to appease your fans, however, is to win baseball games. Cuddyer is a slightly above average hitter who is a complete defensive non-factor. He helped the Twins win games as a cost-controlled young player, but the money he will make can help the team much more than he can. The Twins needed to let him go.
Under ordinary circumstances, I would be inclined to agree. Cuddyer's 3-year, $24 million deal (with that curious option for a fourth year) is probably the worst contract currently on the books. He's been a good, if inconsistent, hitter for most of his career, but he's one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball (at least according to Ultimate Zone Rating, more on that in a minute), and a smaller-market team can't afford to waste so much money on such a middling player. But, and I can't stress this enough because so many analysts outside of Minnesota seem to forget this: the Twins are opening a new ballpark next year and will see an increase in revenue since they won't have to share it with the Vikings anymore. For the first time in nearly thirty years, the Twins will get to keep whatever money they make from Target Field all to themselves. I don't know how much payroll is going to increase, but it isn't unreasonable, even in the current economic climate, to expect the 2010 payroll to be somewhere in the $85-95 million range (which is about average for a medium-sized media market like Minneapolis). Spending nearly $20 million over the next two years for a 2-win (at best) corner outfielder is foolish for a team whose projected payroll is $65 million, but it isn't so bad for an $85-95 million team. And as Sean at Fire Gardy notes, the current crop of free agent corner outfielders isn't particularly impressive. It's an aging and declining group for the most part, and while there might be cheaper options available on the free agent market, they probably won't be much of an improvement. The only way dumping Cuddyer makes sense for the Twins is if they sign Mike Cameron to play center, and then move Denard Span to one of the corner outfield spots.
The biggest knock against Cuddyer's value is that he's such an awful defender, at least according to UZR (his career -34.4 is among the worst of all active players). And while it's true that Cuddles doesn't have much range, I'm not sure if his defense is really that bad. One of the biggest problems with UZR (and most advanced fielding metrics, really) is that it doesn't adjust for playing in unique ballparks very well. Don't get me wrong, UZR is probably the most accurate defensive metric we have and I use it a lot in evaluating player defense, but it does have its limitations. It doesn't really to know what to do with quirky ballparks, like the Metrodome and Fenway Park, and thus it tends to rate outfielders who regularly play in those parks rather poorly. For example, Red Sox left fielders have been among the worst in baseball since 2002 (as far back as we have reliable data). And while Manny Ramirez was playing left for most of that time (and there is little doubt that Manny is a terrible outfielder), it appears that nobody can play left field adequately in Boston. His replacement, Jason Bay, has seen a steep decline in his defensive numbers since coming to Boston. Manny on the other hand, has actually improved a bit defensively since moving to LA, though at -15.4 per 150 defensive games, he still isn't very good. The same thing can be said for the Twins' right fielders (and their outfielders in general, except for Carlos Gomez), who have been mediocre at best over the past eight seasons. Now, I don't think that Cuddyer is one of the best right fielders in baseball, even accounting for the right field baggy in the Metrodome. He's probably still below average, and it's likely that he really is as bad as UZR makes him look. But we won't really know until he plays full time in a ballpark that's actually designed for baseball.