Imagine you are in the stands at Coors Field for your average game in the middle of July. You watch the Rockies play one of the seemingly hundreds of games on the schedule against the San Diego Padres. The Rockies are relevant but hardly outstanding. It is the rubber match of the series, and you figure if they are a contender they should win a series against the Padres at home. The game is tied in the bottom of the 6th inning. With a runner on 2nd base, the Padres pass on Troy Tulowitzki and up strolls the #5 hitter in the order. Sensing the importance of the next at-bat, the fan standing next to you asks: “Who’s up after Tulo?” In the 2011 season that just passed, the following scenarios were all possibilities:
Scenario 1 – You: “Todd Helton.”
Scenario 2 – You: “Seth Smith.”
Fan: “That’s good, as long as the Padres don’t bring in a lefty.”
You: “And as long as they only throw him fastballs.” (OK fine, I added that last part)
Scenario 3 – You: “Ty Wigginton.”
Fan: “Oh….OK. Hey, is he actually cross-eyed?”
Scenario 4 (They actually just passed on Todd Helton at #5, here comes the #6 hitter)
You – “Eliezer Alfonzo is up.”
Fan: “Oh…er…is he the fat one?”
The point is this: the 2011 roster had exactly three hitters that inspired confidence for the Rockies faithful: CarGo, Tulo, and Helton. These types of run-scoring opportunities in the middle of games were the ones we consistently looked back on and lamented: “If only they had gotten a run there.” If the batter at the plate was not one of the three big dogs, we braced for another missed opportunity.
With the Minnesota Twins on the verge of signing Josh Willingham and then presumably letting outfielder Michael Cuddyer walk, the Rockies have a chance to lengthen their lineup. With Carlos Gonzalez batting 3rd, Tulo 4th, Cuddyer 5th and then Helton 6th (where he belongs at this stage of his career), fans will be far less likely to give up on rallies if the opponents get past CarGo and Tulo. While some of the advanced statistics do not favor Cuddyer, he has proven he can produce with runners on base and he has done so in previous seasons as the protection for another accomplished duo in Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
In 2011 he was asked to do more than he was capable of on a bad and injury-burdened Minnesota Twins team. While Cuddyer is not a player who will carry a team, he can definitely still be a good complimentary piece. He can be the kind of player who will come through in clutch situations and be a steady presence in the lineup. If he were to join the 2012 Rockies, I believe this is the conversation you would have with your neighbor in the stands:
Fan: “Another walk. Sheesh! Who’s up after Tulo?”
You: “Michael Cuddyer.”
Fan: “Oh, he’s been good! I’m OK with that.”
Would signing Michael Cuddyer be a ground-shaking move? No. Is he a marquee name? Hardly.
But after years of underachieving players, especially on offense, he is the kind of player who would legitimate the Rockies lineup beyond the two or three big names already on the roster. The status quo is broken. The Seth Smith/Ryan Spilborghs platoon did not work. I am not interested in another platoon that simply trades out Spilborghs for Cody Ross. Ty Wigginton as an everyday player definitely did not work. Ian Stewart, who many of us thought would be the answer batting fifth, underachieved his way to a fresh start in Chicago. The long term model can and should remain one that preaches patience with homegrown players. But in the short term that patience, when it comes to the holes in the middle of the lineup, has run out.
Why Michael Cuddyer and not Carlos Beltran? Because to my eye Cuddyer fits the change in culture that many feel the Rockies need going into 2012. He is a veteran who played on a string of playoff teams in Minnesota. He will slide from a role that asked too much of him into one that fits his skills at age 32. Speaking generally, the Twins make-up is similar to the Rockies. They are not a big market team, but you certainly would no longer call them small market. Recent Twins teams (2011 not withstanding) sustained success in situations much like the one in which the Rockies find themselves now. He understands what it takes in this model for success, something the players on the Colorado roster apparently did not understand in recent disappointing seasons.
You might not be excited about Cuddyer now. But I bet you might warm up to him, and you might even find yourself excited when he strolls to the plate in a situation where you desperately want the Rockies to score that elusive clutch run.