Cuddyer’s Defense Won’t Hurt the Rockies

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As they complain about his poor defense and criticize his signing, many are missing the point with Michael Cuddyer and the Rockies.

His shaky glove is the most contentious and debated aspect in the Rockies 3-year contract (for $31.5 million) with Cuddyer, but several factors are being ignored.

Cuddyer may be a poor defensive outfielder, but the idea that the Rockies made a mistake in signing him based on his defense is stat person’s lament disguised as fiscal and practical sanity; it’s ignoring the Rockies strategy and personnel.

Because the National League doesn’t have a DH and they don’t have anywhere to hide him, Cuddyer’s glove is a perceived problem; but the constant references to how many runs he cost the Twins over the years is a misplaced extrapolation of “if this, then that” without considering what the Rockies do and how many balls are going to be hit to him to begin with.

The Twins pitchers generally allow more ground balls than fly balls; in 2011 they surrendered 1762 fly balls vs 2082 ground balls.

The Rockies had a 2011 difference of 1541/2061 fly balls to ground balls.

That was before the Rockies brought in new starting pitchers whose stuff is conducive to coaxing ground balls.

It’s done by design.

The Twins ratios were similar every year that Cuddyer played right field regularly and accrued the poor defensive metrics that have led to the implication that he’s a pending disaster for his new team in right field—that his defense won’t be mitigated enough by his power bat to make him an intelligent signing.

It’s nonsense.

In general, during Cuddyer’s years in right field, the Twins had 200-300 more ground balls to fly balls; going back to 2008, the Rockies have had 500-700 more ground balls than fly balls.

That’s a big difference.

The Twins were a contact-based pitching team; the Rockies are a contact-based pitching team—but the type of contact is important. The Rockies get more ground balls than the Twins; this makes Cuddyer’s glove in right field less imperative.

Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, how can the porous defense of Cuddyer cost the Rockies runs if the ball isn’t hit to him?

He’s in the big leagues because he can hit and he’ll hit with the Rockies; the best thing to do with a player who’s limited defensively is to hide him where he’ll do the least amount of damage. For the Rockies and Cuddyer, that means right field.

As a direct result of playing their home games in a park that begets a lot of home runs, Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd has filled his pitching staff with arms that throw sinkers and get ground balls.

Their prospective starters for 2012 are all this type of pitcher.

Jhoulys Chacin gets twice as many ground balls as fly balls.

Jorge De La Rosa—ground ball pitcher; Tyler Chatwood—ground ball pitcher; Drew Pomeranz—ground ball pitcher; Jason Hammel—ground ball pitcher.

Their relievers are the same way. Matt Lindstrom and Matt Belisle get ground balls; Rafael Betancourt allows more fly balls than grounders, but he also strikes well over a batter-per-inning.

Their infield defense is led by the still-solid first baseman Todd Helton and the superlative shortstop with a howitzer arm Troy Tulowitzki; second base and shortstop are unsettled, but they’re not going to compromise the infield defense because of the strategy they employ with their pitchers.

The Rockies want their pitchers to throw strikes and get ground balls. And they do.

Because of the reliance on contact-based pitchers and trusting the infield defense, does it matter if they have Cuddyer in right field? Is he going to hurt the team that much considering there’s such a disparity in hit trajectory?

Cuddyer in Colorado will hit for an .800 OPS and he’ll pop at least 20-30 homers—maybe more.

The Rockies biggest issue in 2011 was a lack of depth in the starting rotation. With the young arms they’ve accumulated in trades of Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Iannetta, they’ve addressed that.

Cuddyer has played the outfield, third base, second base and first base with the Twins, but it would be silly to call him a utility player; he’s not good defensively—it’s true—but he’s passable at first base and can be placed in right field without panic.

He can hit; that’s why the Rockies signed him; that’s what he’ll do.

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The Yankees are still in desperate need of starting pitching.

With the continued absence of Phil Hughes, the foreboding nature of Bartolo Colon‘s and Freddy Garcia‘s performances and the absence of Rafael Soriano, they’re going to have to find a quality arm somewhere.

The names that will be bandied about at the trading deadline run the gamut from the financially expensive, player-cheap and probably useful Ryan Dempster; to the “steer clear because he’s toxic” Carlos Zambrano; to the check-in guys who are probably unavailable like Felix Hernandez; and the shaky, but “worth a look to see if the price comes down”-types like Francisco Liriano.

Then there are others.

There are high-quality arms that are struggling in a personal sense and watching as their team plummets in the standings.

Arms like Ubaldo Jimenez.

After a 19-8 season in 2010 and a star turn with various scoreless innings streaks and a no-hitter, Jimenez—like his Colorado Rockies—has struggled this year. Following his effort against the Cardinals, Jimenez has fallen to 0-5 with an ERA of near 6.

Despite that, he’s pitched better as of late after a horrific start; his strikeout numbers and ancillary stats are in line with what he’s always been; and without having watched him, it appears as if his problem is more command-related than any physical malady. In fact, his early season slump could have been attributed directly to the cut on the cuticle of his thumb that negatively affected his ability to grip the ball and put him on the disabled list.

Could the flailing Rockies listen to offers on the 27-year-old Jimenez? And would they do something drastic especially after losing Jorge de la Rosa to Tommy John-surgery?

Their pitching is in tatters, but they’re in a winnable division; with their penchant for late season hot streaks, it would be a major concession to toss the season by dealing Jimenez regardless of what was coming back.

That said, GM Dan O’Dowd is aggressive and willing to think outside the box, doing things sooner rather than later; the club has payroll constraints and if the offer was substantial enough to fill several holes, perhaps they’d listen on Jimenez.

What would the Yankees be willing to do?

Would they put together a package of Jesus Montero, either Dellin Betances or Manny Banuelos and the heretofore “untouchable” Eduardo Nunez for Jimenez?

The Rockies have to realize by now that Chris Iannetta isn’t going to cut it as a long-term solution behind the plate and while Montero is young and his defense is a work-in-progress, he’s still a catcher and Iannetta is signed through 2012 with a 2013 option; Montero should be ready by then if he’s every going to be ready; and if he can’t catch, they can shift him to a corner infield position or the outfield.

It would be a lot to part with either Banuelos or Betances. Banuelos is 20 and Betances 23, you don’t want to trade such youth in most circumstances; but Jimenez is only a few years older, is locked up contractually at a low price through 2014—$4.2 million in 2012; $5.75 million option with a $1 million buyout in 2013; and $8 million with a $1 million buyout in 2014—and is a proven big league commodity.

He’d be a Yankee for the long haul and he’d be a highly affordable horse at the top of the rotation if he’s healthy.

Barring a salary dump, you’re rarely going to get a pitcher of Jimenez’s caliber—in his prime and signed long term—if he’s pitching well for a contending team.

The Rockies are currently in playoff contention because of the watered down National League, but they’re in drastic flux with injuries and lineup holes; maybe they’d like to reload with multiple players while dropping a stick of dynamite in the clubhouse.

With the Red Sox suddenly playing up to their potential and the Yankees pitching issues, a Yankees playoff spot for 2011 is far from guaranteed regardless of the pompous rantings of Michael Kay and Mike Francesa; if they want to go for it now, they’re going to have to surrender some young talent for a deep strike.

Jimenez might be that deep strike.

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