December 16, 2011

Twins sign Josh Willingham, say goodbye to Michael Cuddyer

With their three-year, $25 million offer to Michael Cuddyer on the table for almost two weeks and no resolution in sight the Twins decided to move on, replacing his right-handed bat in the middle of their lineup by signing Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million deal. Cuddyer then signed with Colorado for three years and $31.5 million, so by swapping 33-year-olds the Twins save $10 million, get two draft picks, and maybe even wind up with the superior player.

At a minimum Willingham is the superior hitter, offsetting lower batting averages than Cuddyer by offering considerably more power and plate discipline. This year their overall production was nearly identical, as Cuddyer hit .284/.346/.459 with 20 homers and an .805 OPS in 139 games and Willingham hit .246/.332/.477 with 29 homers and an .810 OPS in 136 games. However, in 2010 and cumulatively during the past three seasons Willingham's edge over Cuddyer is clear:

2011            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .284     .346     .459     .805     121
Willingham     .246     .332     .477     .810     121

2010            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .271     .336     .417     .753     107
Willingham     .268     .389     .459     .848     129

2009            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .276     .342     .520     .862     124
Willingham     .260     .367     .496     .863     127

2009-2011       AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .276     .341     .465     .806     117
Willingham     .257     .360     .479     .839     125

That certainly isn't a massive difference, but during the past three seasons Willingham topped Cuddyer by around 20 points of on-base percentage and 15 points of slugging percentage, all while playing in pitcher-friendly ballparks and grounding into one-third as many double plays. Willingham has been more consistent as well, posting an OPS above .800 in each of his six full seasons in the majors while Cuddyer cracked an .800 OPS three times in eight full seasons.

Willingham has also displayed a less extreme platoon split than Cuddyer, who often struggled against right-handed pitching. Willingham hasn't crushed left-handed pitching quite as well as Cuddyer, but hit a robust .249/.368/.514 off lefties from 2009-2011 and also hit .259/.358/.466 off righties. By comparison Cuddyer hit just .267/.320/.424 off righties from 2009-2011, which is below average for a corner outfielder. Cuddyer crushes lefties, but Willingham hits everyone.

He's one of MLB's most powerful right-handed bats, averaging 27 homers and 32 doubles per 550 at-bats for his career. Among all right-handed hitters with 1,500 plate appearances since 2009 he ranks 11th in Isolated Power, sandwiched between Alex Rodriguez and Matt Kemp, and his adjusted OPS+ ranks 16th. And as Parker Hageman at Over The Baggy pointed out in an analysis of Willingham's swing, his dead-pull approach should be an ideal fit in Target Field.

Defense is a different story, as Willingham is a poor left fielder with limited experience in right field and little action at first base since the minors. Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him as 6.7 runs below average per 150 games in left field since 2009 and his numbers in right field are similar. Ideally he'd be a designated hitter and that may be an option at times, but it sounds like the Twins want Willingham to replace Cuddyer in right field.

That won't be pretty, but neither were Cuddyer's numbers in right field. Ultimate Zone Rating shows Cuddyer as 10.5 runs below average per 150 games in right field since 2009 even with his strong arm factored in. Cuddyer also has experience at first base and can be an emergency option at second base and third base, so he has considerably more versatility than Willingham, but in terms of simply turning fly balls into outs they've been similarly bad.

As a walks-and-power, fly ball-hitting slugger with poor batting averages, big strikeout totals, and little range Willingham is an obvious departure from the typical Twins mold. He's also the most expensive free agent signing in Twins history, although that isn't saying a whole lot for a team that had never dropped even $10 million on an outside free agent. Across baseball $21 million over three years won't rank among the dozen biggest contracts of the offseason.

And while a 33-year-old is at risk for decline Willingham has yet to provide less than $7 million worth of value in six years as a big leaguer, with Fan Graphs pegging his all-around production at $11 million per 140 games. That includes valuations of $11.5 million, $12.4 million, and $9.4 million during the past three seasons, so even if Willingham slips a bit in his mid-30s the Twins should get solid value in the form of a skill set they've struggled to develop internally.

Willingham has generally been a better player than Cuddyer, besting him in metrics like Wins Above Replacement, but they're very similar and close enough in value that an argument can certainly be made for preferring Cuddyer, as the Twins know what they're getting and clearly loved him on the field and in the clubhouse. However, factoring in the money saved and draft picks gained makes it much tougher to justify a preference for Cuddyer over Willingham.

No picks were lost to sign Willingham, but the Twins get two picks for losing Cuddyer. Because the Rockies went 73-89 in 2011 the compensation for Cuddyer isn't as strong as if he'd signed with a winning team, but the Twins get two of the top 70 picks in June's draft and can add a pair of quality prospects to a farm system in need of help. Based on draft studies those two picks project to be worth $3-5 million and then there's the $10 million saved in salary.

Cuddyer was the Twins' first-round pick in 1997, worked his way through the minors to debut in 2001, and leaves as one of the best, longest-tenured, and most-beloved players in team history. Keeping him around would've been nice, but it's unclear if Cuddyer wanted to remain in Minnesota and ultimately the Twins were able to replace him with a similar and arguably superior player for $10 million less while adding two valuable picks. They made the right call.

  • doofus

    I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that i doubt Cuddyer doesn’t want to come back to Minnesota, but more he doesn’t want to come back and be on a losing team. Cuddyer probably is looking at money, winning and family situation as factors. He wants 30 million and isn’t getting it so he is sitting. The Twins need more improvements so why take a discount to stay before he is convinced the the Twins will be competetive next year? If we raised the offer a little to say 27 million + option year and/ or get that other Starting pitcher that would make us serious contenders if Cuddyer resigns would probably do the trick.

    I hope they resign Cuddyer as I am not high on Plouffe/ Revere as a platoon and I would rather us keep Cuddyer than sign a lesser OF such as Johnny Gomes. But I am not opposed to Gomes either.

  • TFelton

    Agree. TRyan isn’t messing around. Control your destiny v being controlled. I don’t know how this upcoming season turns out, but I am happy TC’s are trying something with calculated risk taking, and solid baseball decision making.

  • http://fieldoftwins.blogspot.com/ Shane

    A Plouffe/Revere platoon is almost a pipe dream with Gardenhire at the helm. I wouldn’t mind that at all. Signing Cuddyer would mean two aging guys signed for 3 years in the OF. OK . . . then it would be time to trade Tosoni and Benson and wait for Hicks and co. in a few years.

  • spoofbonser

    In a perfect world it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have both Willingham and Cuddyer in the lineup/outfield this year. What you would give up in defense would likely be balanced out in offense, would give the team a much more veteran laden lineup than last year, and would offer them defensive flexibility in later innings. however…… we all know 3 years from now, that is two slow, aging corner outfielders too many.

    I personally think Benson could replace Cuddyer’s production in right field, but it is reasonable to assume that won’t take place in 2012. His arm is comparable though, right?

    If Gardenhire can utilize both WIllingham and Doumit to their best abilities, which is above my paygrade of dirtnaps, then the Twins will still have a chance to field competitive lineups while giving some young guys a chance, like Revere, Plouffe, Benson, and Tosoni. I also think by leaning on those two, there is likely to be many opportunities for those guys to fill in as a full time roll while Willingham and Doumit take time on the DL, not to mention other starters.

    I am beginning to think more fondly of Cuddyer as it looks more and more like he is leaving, but I could generate another 500 words if they singed him trying to reason why they shouldn’t have. In fact, the Carroll, Doumit, and Willingham signings can all be looked on favorably on their merit, Capps, Slowey, and Mijares…….not in my book. In that view, it appears the Twins are making strides in offense and spinning their wheels on the mound, yep.

  • spoofbonser

    Spoof brings up some good points.

  • JR Cigar

    Willingham + two picks vs. Cuddyer? Right call, Terry Ryan. No more “….Cuddyer swings and misses at that slider that was low and away and well out of the strike zone…” Of course, Willingham K’s alot, too, but I like the power his bat brings as a RH hitter in the lineup between (hopefully a healthy) Mauer and Morneau. He’s going to see lots of good pitches to swing at.

  • Greg

    The league’s worst defense gets even worse. The Twins are the anti-Rays! Expect a complete implosion of the pitching staff and the AL’s worst record in 2012.

  • Paulie

    Greg, how did the league’s worst defense “get even worse?” Willingham is not a good OF, but Cuddy wasn’t either. UZR ain’t everything, but there are FAR too many Twins fans who thought Cuddy was a good defender because of his strong arm & “position flexibility.” It’s nice to have a player willing to play multiple positions in a pinch (like Cuddyer admirably did the last few years), but he wasn’t average (let alone above average) at any of them. It’s essentially a wash on the defensive side, so ease up on your narrative.

  • Mike

    We’d never see this honest assessment from the Strib guys. They have relied on Cuddy for their stories for so many years I’m not sure Len 3 will know what to do. Nice job AG!

  • Matt

    “The league’s worst defense gets even worse.” Delmon Young begs to differ.

  • Josh

    actually, if handled correctly our OF defense for 2012 should be significantly better. (unfortunately, it looks like Gardy is bound and determined to play revere in LF, but let’s talk optimal scenarios)

    Willingham is a bit below average in RF. Average arm, limited range, but seems to catch what he gets to. His range is probably a bit better than Cuddyer’s, but Cuddy’s got the better arm. Push

    Put Revere in CF and you’ve got help covering that RF-CF gap. Revere’s arm is horrid, but his range is awesome. With last year’s experience at Target Field, I expect him to be stronger and more confident this season defensively.

    Span should be in LF. Better arm would be nice and we’ve seen him succeed in LF before. More importantly, he’s got the range to cheat in a little, allowing Revere to cheat over towards RF. Span & Revere will get to a lot of fly balls, which this staff needs.

    It’s certainly better than having the Adventures of Delmon Young in LF matched by Cuddyer in RF.

    I’ll miss Cuddy and wouldn’t mind having him stay, but this is a very good move for the Twins. Save money for a comparable player and get 2 draft picks? A good move. Cuddy would have cost the team another $2-3M per season and you can make a pretty good argument that Willingham will actually be the better player (if a less versatile one).

    The question is where should the Twins spend the savings? I don’t think using it on Cuddyer is going to happen; the Twins saying that is a PR move to show they’re not trying to run him out of town. I’d like it to go on starting pitching.

  • BR

    In a Willingham or Cuddyer scenario, this was absolutely the right move, for the reasons AG states. From a fan perspective, I’d like to see both guys brought back, with Wilingham essentially replacing Delmon Young (making this addition an even better upgrade). Let Revere be a pinch runner/defensive replacement while he figures out how to hit (or at least slap hit and bunt). Ploufee can be a utility/5th OF/injury replacement guy.

    But I’d only want to see this if the $100M payroll is a ruse. IOW, only if they’d still be willing to upgrade the pitching. Another vet arm in the ‘pen and a quality starter better than Blackburn and at least equal to Pavano c. 2010. All that would require another near-$120M payroll.

    I’m not holding my breath…

  • SL__72

    Fwiw positional adjustments Tango worked out and Fangraphs currently uses are:

    LF -7.5
    DH -17.5

    I believe he worked those out on a per 150g basis. So anyone who is better than 10 runs below average in LF still has some defensive value. 1B is -12.5 so there isn’t much room for value between “below average 1B” and DH.

  • popriveter

    Aaron, it feels to me like you’re trying pretty hard to stretch minor differences in numbers to show Willingham as a superior hitter. These two players are statistically about as close as you can get. Consider: Target Field’s wall from left to center is 9-10″ further from home plate. If 5 of Cuddyer’s TF warning track drives would be home runs in the Coliseum instead of outs and 5 of Willingham’s shortest home runs were traded for warning track outs in TF, the numbers would make Cuddyer look like the clearly superior hitter in 2011. It wouldn’t actually make him a better hitter, but it would color the picture differently. With such a slim margin as there is between these two hitters, I don’t think you can really draw honest conclusions based on the margin. They are nearly the same hitter.

  • D-Luxxx

    Popriveter – You obviously didn’t read the piece linked to “Over the Baggy” did you? Willingham’s swing is going to make him a better power hitter in TF, where as Cuddy’s approach was not the best way to hit there.

  • Scott Stahoviak

    Great analysis AG – I think you succesfully have demonstrated the upside in taking Willingham over Cuddyer consider both players by themselves are essentially equal. Whether fans want to admit it or not, we are in somewhat of a rebuilding phase and any compensatory draft picks are bonuses for letting Cuddyer go (in addition to the price tag savings).

    While Cuddy was a great member of our organization for many years, I truly believe this was the right move by TR.

    …Now let’s address some of this pitching already!

  • popriveter

    D-luxxx, I did read that article. It doesn’t move Target Field’s wall any closer. Down the line, the TF wall is 9′ deeper. If I hit a ball 334 feet down the line in Oakland (which I couldn’t in a million years), it is a home run, but if I do it in TF, it is 5 feet short of the wall. My point is that comparing their stats isn’t a perfect science and when they are this close, one has to really stretch to extrapolate any conclusion other than that they are virtually equivalent. That said, equivalent talent + 2 draft picks (and good-character track record) for less money is a good move. I can’t argue with that. However, I won’t be surprised or disappointed if Willingham hits “only” 20 HR in Target in 2012.

  • Ty

    Cuddy signed 3yrs/$31.5 million – Rockies

  • Josh

    With Cuddy signing in Colorado for $31,5M over 3 years, the Willingham signing looks smarter than ever. $3M a year isn’t a small savings, they’re comparable players, and the Twins get 2 draft picks. Cuddy seems like a good guy, good teammate, good community guy, etc. but this is the right move for both.

    Can’t blame Cuddy for not wanting to give a $5M hometown discount, can’t blame the Twins for saving $10M in the end and getting 2 picks.

  • Ted

    “Smarter than ever”? You mean since yesterday? Sorry, there really is no reason for the snark, but that is too funny. Also, I agree, the Cuddyer signing makes Willingham’s contract look better, which is what most expected would happen once Cuddyer signed.

  • AndyW

    This reminds of when I was young, in the early-mid 1990′s. My generation began using computers in school before our parents came around. I urged them to buy stock in Microsoft or AOL or Yahoo. That was 1995, at least for the Microsoft. In 1999, my mom calls me in college, and proud tells me she put a good chunk of her retirement into Yahoo, Microsoft and a few others.

    I felt bad, but I told her, “It’s too late. You’ve missed the opportunity. They might go up, but how much? You’re too late.”

    When Willingham was a catcher mashing in AAA, I was all over the Twins forums and even wrote some blogs for Most Valuable Network about how they should try to acquire him in a trade. At the time, the Marlins didn’t seem to be too high on him. Eventually he got his shot and proved to be exactly what I thought he’d be… a .260ish hitter with enough power to post a slugging percentage between .450 and .500. That’s not bad if you can get him for cheap, which we could have once upon a time.

    Now, what is the upside? Sure, he maybe serviceable and if the two options are Cuddyer at $31 or Willingham at $21, then I like the move. But what is the upside and what is the risk?

    Sorry Twins, this MAY work out okay for you, but “you’re too late” to see any big payback.

  • Yack

    The 2 two draft picks are overvalued. A sandwich and a second round pick should not factor in when deciding to offer a contract to a guy like Cuddyer.

  • Jeff

    @Yack: The value of the picks is based on a statistical analysis of the value of draft picks over many teams and years, and if anything, they’re *more* valuable to a team that has a drained farm system. But I suppose we could just trust your intuition instead.

  • Dirleton

    Has anyone told Cuddyer that there are trees in CO?

  • J

    Why not sign Kubel and have him play right? Willingham can DH/be the 4th outfielder. (I would also go farther and put Mauer at 3rd about half the time and put Doumit behind the plate, with Butera a standard late innings replacement).

  • Pedro Munoz

    How about instead of a late inning replacement, we just never let Butera play for the Twins again.

  • http://twinkietown.com steve hoffman (SHS)

    After watching Willingham play for 1 full season

    I’d love to hear the, “similar arguably superior player” to Cuddyer chatter again this time next year

  • Andrew

    Yes, the Twins made the sensible choice. But I don’t feel good about seeing Cuddyer go. All things being equal, I’d take Cuddyer over Willingham in a heartbeat, but it’s not and 10 mil plus 2 picks in the top 70 do sway the argument to Willingham.

    I have questions about the whole thing though. What does it say about the Twins organization that a guy who was a part of it for 14 years really didn’t seem to want to come back? It’s not like Cuddyer is going to a annual contender, did he really just want to get paid? Or did the Twins overstate their interest in Cuddyer to try to appease the fans who didn’t want to see him go?

  • Gendo

    The Twins are admittedly pretty dumb, but I don’t think even they’re dumb enough to move Mauer to third.

    They’ve surprised me before though!

  • bon

    Morneau is going to go on a death streak next year. No more rollovers: pure bang and and wallers!

  • John Gregory

    one of the best, longest-tenured, and most-beloved players in team history

    Not sure if this means top ten best, or top hundred, but I’m having trouble seeing Cuddyer in the real top echelon. Likewise there are many second-tier players who were on the WS winning teams who were more beloved. I personally view Cuddyer as a marginal disappointment as a 9th-overall draft pick. 12-WAR in a career (so far) is nothing to sneeze at, as there are plenty of downright busts even that high in a draft, but it’s not especially good at that slot either. Cuddyer was an everyday player, nothing more; his one all-star appearance was the “pity pick” that each bad team gets one of.

  • http://aarongleeman.com aarongleeman

    I personally view Cuddyer as a marginal disappointment as a 9th-overall draft pick.

    This is beyond silly. There have been 47 players selected No. 9 overall in baseball history and Cuddyer ranks 8th in WAR despite only being 33 years old. Only two No. 9 picks in 47 years have topped 20 WAR for their careers.

  • Katz

    If Cuddyer was really the super clubhouse guy/great makeup type that we were all led to believe, wouldn’t he have stuck it out with the Twins?