Twins Free Agency Debate: Michael Cuddyer vs. Josh Willingham

The way it looks now, one of two things will happen for the Twins in right field. Either Michael Cuddyer will return or the Twins will make a heavy push for free agent Josh Willingham. Cuddyer may end up with the Rockies or the Cardinals if the Twins deal doesn’t work out. Willingham is also a target for the Rockies, and the Rays and Indians are interested as well.

The conventional wisdom in Twins Territory is that the team wants Cuddyer to come back, and that he is their first choice. They’ll only try to sign Willingham (or a different RF) if Cuddyer leaves. But should that be the case? Let’s compare the two.

AGE: The two are very close in age. Both will be 33 on Opening Day next year. Willingham was born on February 17, 1979, and Cuddyer was born March 27, 1979.

PERFORMANCE: Their career numbers are pretty similar as well. Cuddyer is a career .272/.343/.451 hitter, while Willingham boasts a .262/.361/.475 slash line. Last year, Willingham hit .246/.332/.477 with a career high 29 homers in pitcher-friendly Oakland. Cuddyer made the All Star team for the first time en route to a .284/.346/.459 season. Cuddyer only hit 20 homers, but he did have a career high 32 in 2009. Overall, Willingham is a slightly better on-base guy with a little more power, but the differences are pretty negligible. One big difference at the plate: Willingham is more prone to the strikeout, whiffing 150 times in 2011 compared to Cuddyer’s 95.

FIELDING: Neither one is stellar in terms of range or glove ability. Cuddyer had a UZR of 0.1 in right field last year, very close to average, but he had consistently had worse numbers in years before that (including an awful -20.6 in 2010). Willingham’s UZR in the outfield was -10.2 last year. Neither one is going to be an asset in right field. Cuddyer, as we all know, has been able to fill in at first and second base without making a fool of himself, which probably gives him a slight advantage in the fielding department (Willingham has only played three career innings at fist base, though he did get in a few games at catcher from 2004 through 2006).

MONEY: Earlier this week the Twins offered Cuddyer a three year deal worth either $24 or $25 million. There have been rumors that Cuddyer is asking for a few million dollars more or an extra contract year, but details on those rumors vary. The Rockies have offered Willingham a three year contract as well. No dollar figures were released, but given the substantial similarities between the two players, I would imagine Willingham will sign for about the same amount of money as Cuddyer. Either player would require at least a three year deal for $8 to $10 million per year. Dollars per year aren’t the biggest cost here. The real factor to consider is which player will be a better bargain for a contract that will keep paying him after he turns 35 years old. There is a real danger either one could fizzle with age.

DRAFT PICKS: Cuddyer and Willingham are both Type A free agents, so the Twins would lose draft compensation either way. If Cuddyer leaves, the Twins will be awarded a supplemental round pick, plus the first or second round pick of the team that signs him. Thus, keeping him costs the team two very high picks. Willingham is a Type A free agent, but under the new CBA, the Twins won’t have to send a pick to the A’s if they sign him. So Willingham would cost zero draft picks, compared to Cuddyer’s two. [EDIT: the post originally stated that Willingham would cost the Twins a draft pick, but that was incorrect]

INTANGIBLES: If you’ve followed the Twins at all in the last decade, you know that Cuddyer is the team’s emotional leader. By all accounts, he gets along very well with his teammates, and he is respected by players, managers, fans, and front office staff alike. He is also a very charismatic and intelligent person who could have a future in coaching or broadcasting after he’s done playing. This is not to say that Willingham is a jerk or a loner or anything. He may well be a completely personable guy once you get to know him.

AND THE WINNER IS: Willingham. It’s close, but in my opinion, Willingham would be a slightly better choice for the Twins than Cuddyer. Since their ages, salaries, and stats are so similar, the draft picks are the tiebreaker. You may recall that the Twins lost 99 games last year. It’s important to try to field a competitive team in 2012, but they also need to put some effort into rebuilding the organization with young talent. Minnesota already lost one high draft pick by re-signing Matt Capps. Is it really a good idea to forfeit two more for Cuddyer?

Don’t get me wrong: it wouldn’t be a terrible thing if Cuddyer signed, and I could completely understand the decision, since he’s a fan favorite and a core player on the team. I am about 60% sure this is the move the Twins will make, and I’m okay with that move, even if it’s not my first choice.

BUT WAIT! There are other options!

What about Coco Crisp? The speedy outfielder played alongside Willingham in Oakland last year. He had a down year, with a .264/.314/.379 line, but he did steal 49 bases. Plus, he is capable of playing center field if Denard Span’s concussion problems become an issue again. And while he will never hit for power, wouldn’t it be nice if the Twins had an outfield of Crisp, Span, and Ben Revere? Three centerfielders with speed and range would be a major boost to Scott Baker and Carl Pavano. So far, Detroit seems to be his biggest suitor. The Twins should at least give his agent a call.

Also, don’t forget Jason Kubel. We haven’t been hearing much about him lately; he’s been playing second fiddle to Cuddyer in all the free agent talks. Kubel hit .272/.332/.434 last year in limited duty, and he is a career .273/.335/.459 hitter. He’s as weak in the field as Cuddyer or WillinghamBeing a lefty doesn’t help Kubel, either, given all the other lefty bats in the Minnesota lineup. But rumors of teams pursuing Kubel have been sparse, so he will probably be a lot cheaper than Cuddyer or Willingham. He is also three years younger than those two, which means he’s less likely to experience a major skill decline during the life of his contract. Kubel is a Type B free agent, so the Twins would lose out on a supplemental round pick if he re-signed.

Topics: Coco Crisp, Jason Kubel, Josh Willingham, Michael Cuddyer

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