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Michael Cuddyer, Second Baseman

The Minnesota Twins are generally criticized for being too conservative. But this season, they have shown a bit of early-season panic. First, Joe Nathan was granted his wish of being removed from the closer role two weeks into the season, and now manager Ron Gardenhire has decided to fill his vacancy at second base with a guy who hasn’t played there in six years.

Gardenhire’s stated reasoning for granting Michael Cuddyer the opportunity to be his everyday second baseman for the next month or so whileTsuyoshi Nishioka recovers from injury is so that Gardenhire can get both Jason Kubel and Jim Thome into the lineup on a daily basis, something he feels his struggling offense needs. And while that is certainly a need, what he isn’t saying — but is true nonetheless — is that Cuddyer may be on his last legs as a Major League regular. Cuddyer has had good offensive seasons before, but they have come sporadically. His high-water mark came in 2006, when he rode a career high .328 BABIP to a three-win season, the only time he has crossed that threshold. His wOBA of .370 that season fell to .349 the next season, and in two of the three subsequent seasons, he failed to put up a .330 wOBA. In 2009, he nearly duplicated his 2006 numbers, essentially trading a handful of doubles for homers. However, he was less valuable in 2009 than he was in 2006, and that was due to his poor defense.

Cuddyer was actually drafted as a shortstop, but only spent one season playing the position professionally. He was then shifted to third base, and by his fourth pro season, he was playing as much at first and the outfield as he was at third. He has been shuffled around defensively because of his bat, but there is no longer a need for that. But loyalty dies hard, and Cuddyer is the longest tenured Twin on the organization. So, as the Rockies did last season with Brad Hawpe, the Twins are asking Cuddyer to do the impossible, and hoping he delivers. Unlike Hawpe though, Cuddyer is being asked to play a premier position, one which he is ill-equipped to handle.

The average height and weight for qualified second basemen this season is 5’11”, 193 lbs. Cuddyer is listed as 6’2”, 225 lbs. Cuddyer hasn’t played enough innings at second base to come up with a definitive sample of his ability there, but suffice to say that if he’s not an adequate defender at first base, third base or in right field, he’s very unlikely to be an adequate defender at second. This is compounded by the fact that the Twins are largely a ground ball staff.

The only Twins starter who produces more fly balls than ground balls is Scott Baker. The other four were ground ball machines last season — their GB/FB marks were all in the top 26 among pitchers with more than 130 innings pitched, with Francisco Liriano ranking the highest at eighth. They have not started 2011 with such extreme tendencies, but they have still leaned more to the ground ball side. It may not get any easier once the starters come out of the game either. Glen Perkins’ GB/FB last year was 1.76, and though Matt Capps had been historically a fly ball pitcher, last year his GB/FB was 1.59.

Getting back to the offensive side, for this experiment to work — even for the small period of time that it will be conducted — Cuddyer needs to hit. Unfortunately, he’s doing nothing of the sort these days. Since the start of last August, Cuddyer has played in 77 games, or just under half a season. In that time, he has hit .254/.318/.376, with a .122 ISO, and twice as many strikeouts as walks. That’s not cutting it, even at second base, where the offensive threshold is lower. You can’t even blame his problems on spacious Target Field, as since the ballpark has opened, Cuddyer has actually hit better at home than he has on the road.

Cuddyer always been a poor defender, and is slowly but surely transforming into a poor hitter as well, even by second base standards. However, as crazy as it sounds, it’s still hard to kill the Twins here. The only other middle infielders on their 40-man roster are Luke Hughes, Trevor Plouffe and Matt Tolbert, and Cuddyer doesn’t project to do any worse than they would. While the Twins didn’t necessarily need to shift Cuddyer to second in order to play Kubel and Thome every day, doing so allows them to keep all three in the lineup without bruising any egos, and the bottom line is that he Twins simply ill-equipped to have either of their starting middle infielders go down with an injury. So even though this probably won’t work out in their favor, you have to credit them for at least thinking outside the box. If Cuddyer turns it around at the plate and doesn’t embarrass himself in the field, perhaps he will have found a way to stick around in the Majors a little longer. And if he doesn’t, well, the Twins haven’t exactly been running on all cylinders this year anyway.