Two Points About the Michael Cuddyer Signing

Due to the amount of money the Rockies just paid free agent outfielder Michael Cuddyer, opinions are understandably mixed. I’ve already made my case for Cuddyer. The purpose of this post is to challenge a small number of arguments against the trade that I believe either miss the point or are incomplete.

Before getting to those points it is important to establish one common understanding. The Rockies overpaid. Whether you measure that by sabermetrics (WAR/$, etc) or relative to Josh Willingham’s newly signed contract with the Twins, $31.5 million is enough to make even the biggest fan of Cuddyer cringe for a moment. Having established that number as too high, let’s move on to two other points.

One argument you will come across is that the Rockies did not have a hole in right field, and that Seth Smith was a similarly productive league-average right fielder. This argument indicates that the Rockies already had a Cuddyer-like player on their roster, production wise, for far less money. While we can gain a great deal from sabermetric analysis, it also nudges us towards revisionist history from time to time. This is one such case; too many people take for granted that Seth Smith was the unquestioned starter in right field last season. Logically it then follows that his projected production in 2012 is close enough to Cuddyer’s to render this move a mistake. So they did not fill an actual hole on their roster, right?

Wrong. 

To state that Seth Smith and Michael Cuddyer are the same player is misleading. Michael Cuddyer has played every day for a number of years, whether against a right handed or left handed pitcher, and his production has remained relatively consistent (although it is predictably better against left handed pitching). To the dismay of the Rockies fan base, Seth Smith has never consistently started against left handed pitchers, leaving us with the scrap heap of Ryan Spilborghs, Ty Wigginton, Eric Young Jr, Cole Garner (want me to keep going?) playing in his stead.

Part of this was the stubbornness of Jim Tracy, which frustrated me as much as anybody else. But his statistical drop-offs from righty to lefty are also precipitous: from a .299 to a .217 BA, from a .526 to a .304 SLG, and from a .891 to a .576 OPS. Whether because of Jim Tracy’s decision making or because these statistics truly reflect Smith’s ability against left handed pitching, no person can definitively claim to know that he is the same everyday player as Cuddyer because he has never actually been an everyday player. Cuddyer, on the other hand, has been for a while now and his power production, something the Rockies do need, is relatively consistent. People should not confuse overpaying him with not needing him.

A lack of power production from the corner outfield spot not occupied by Carlos Gonzalez is a glaring need and has been for the last couple years. The drudgery at the end of the 2011 season has shifted the focus of Rockies management and fans alike to the holes on the pitching staff. But don’t mistake that transition as a sign that the lineup is good or stable. It has been a problem for a while, dating back to the not-so-distant past when we were enamored with our pitching staff and thought that the team came up short because of a lack of clutch/situational offense.

Remember that the Rockies have disappointed fans for the last two seasons, not just 2011. In 2010 the hitting did not keep up with the pitching, and the failed signings of Ty Wigginton and Jose Lopez last offseason mean that problem never got fixed. Cuddyer’s signing is partially an effort to correct those mistakes.

What are the traditional power positions? Corner outfield, first base and third base, right? The Rockies can cover for a lack at one of them because of Troy Tulowitzki. Todd Helton is still productive but not to the point that they can afford to miss out on that power at two of those four positions. The Rockies very well may have overpaid Cuddyer, in part, because the uncertainty of third base meant they had to lock down the other corner outfield spot.

Another point that I believe naysayers are too quick to glaze over is how much the Rockies needed his clubhouse presence. This is tough to measure – nearly impossible, in fact, if you’re looking for a reliable number like WAR. Those who find comfort in new and fascinating statistics don’t like talking about something intangible like clubhouse culture because we cannot observe it ourselves. We have no choice but to take the comments from players and beat writers about this issue at face value. I believe the players when they say that it matters and that part of their downfall last season was their need for more personalities like Cuddyer. It matters; we just don’t know how much it matters.

There are valid arguments against the signing. Some, such as this one from Joe Soriano, are so convincing that I start to get nervous. Ultimately, when it comes to Michael Cuddyer, the cold and objective world of statistical analysis charges towards a head-on collision with subjective gut feelings. There are valid points on both sides of the argument, which makes it great fun; what’s better than this kind of sports debate? But if you do choose to disagree, I urge you to acknowledge that the Rockies did fill a hole on their roster and that the clubhouse factor matters.

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