Young Rox to lean on Cuddyer on field, in clubhouse
Veteran keeps 'em laughing while eager to return to productive, healthy self
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The crowd began to form at a group of black leather couches around veteran Michael Cuddyer in the Rockies' clubhouse.
The gathering, and the laughs, grew as Cuddyer made a card that prospect Tim Wheeler thought was in his hand mysteriously show up in the top of a locker. At least a dozen teammates roared with laughter as Cuddyer made believers out of disbelieving Ramon Hernandez and Edgmer Escalona.
Cuddyer's card tricks are only part of the reason he became popular with teammates and fans over 11 seasons with the Twins (2001-11), and was immediately liked after signing with Colorado before last season. This season, after injuries and the adjustment period to the National League, Cuddyer is out to show the production the Rockies expected when signing him to a three-year, $31.5 million contract has not disappeared.
Last season was by no means a clunker. The .260 average was Cuddyer's lowest since 2008, but he had 16 home runs, 30 doubles and two triples -- respectable figures for playing in just 101 games. Twice last season, once in July and again in August, Cuddyer suffered oblique injuries that forced him to the disabled list. He didn't return the second time.
"People get caught up in the .260 average, but I was trying to figure out pitchers and catchers and the like," Cuddyer said. "I don't measure my season on individual statistics, because what it boils down to is how many games you win or lose. But to answer the questions you asked, I was not disappointed with the production. I felt like I was producing when I was in there with what I'm supposed to do -- the extra-base hits, the RBIs, the runs."
Cuddyer, who turns 34 on March 27, could have a huge impact as the Rockies attempt to reverse their fortunes after last year's 64-98 mess, the worst record in club history.
Cuddyer can shift seamlessly from right field to first base -- a much-needed attribute, since the Rox aren't sure what they will get from 39-year-old veteran first baeman Todd Helton. Cuddyer did some of the switching last year.
Also, if Cuddyer is right that being familiar with opposing teams' strategy is the key to production, he will be a big part of the "Blake Street Bullies" persona the team is seeking. Realizing the Rockies are going to struggle on the road, new manager Walt Weiss and hitting coach Dante Bichette want monstrous offense at home. One reason the Rox signed Cuddyer was his ability to hit with power and to the gaps. If he continues to do so and stays healthy, the club envisions a big season at home from Cuddyer.
Then there is his impact with a roster that will always be heavy on youth.
"He's a pro in every sense of the word," Weiss said. "He's going to be great for me and great for our club. Great for me because of the impact he has on the rest of the guys as far as playing the game hard, playing the game right. He's got a ton of respect not only in our clubhouse, but in the game.
"He's a very productive player, very professional hitter. [Michael is] primarily a right fielder, but he knows he's going to play some first base, too. He's going to have a good year for us."
The injuries last season raised never-before-heard concerns about Cuddyer's durability, especially since it was his first year in mile-high altitude, which is theorized to be harder on players. But Cuddyer has insisted that the oblique problems could have happened in any venue, and he was fine by the time last season ended.
It's early, but camp has started well. In Saturday's opener, Cuddyer ranged to his right for a nice backhand grab and a smooth throw to second to start a double play. There have been no health concerns.
The raves about him as a teammate are no trivial matter.
Because of last season's numerous injuries, the club was turned over to young players who were just beginning their careers, were forced to play new positions or both. But handling the grind of a full season, or dealing with expectations based upon performance, will be new experiences to many of them.
Cuddyer is willing to be a leader on a team he thinks will laugh hard, play hard and, eventually, succeed.
"It's being able to communicate, being able to talk to guys on a personal level, not just baseball," Cuddyer said. "You're with these guys 200-plus days a year. It's hard to go through that season without learning about them on a personal level, and if you do, then you're doing them an injustice and yourself an injustice."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.