CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Twins camp report: In an imperfect world, Cuddyer is best insurance

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He plays right field. He plays first base. He plays second, third and center.

He signs autographs after practice. He engages fans on Twitter. He respectfully stands when he's being interviewed.

Regularly overshadowed by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, he might not be Minnesota's Most Valuable Player.

But meet Michael Cuddyer -- the Twins' most invaluable player.

"Half-joking, but half-serious, we call him 'Captain Cuddy,'" Morneau said. "If something needs to be fixed, he's on top of it. He embodies what it means to be a Minnesota Twin."

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Without Cuddyer, the Twins don't win the past two AL Central crowns. Who else could have stepped in so gracefully at first, and with such aplomb at the plate, as Cuddyer when Morneau was lost for the season last July 7 with a concussion? And before that, when Morneau's back went out in 2009 and he didn't play after Sept. 12?

Now, it is a new spring and a fresh start. Only the imagination limits where we might find Cuddyer in 2011.

"Whatever," Cuddyer, the Twins' first-round pick (ninth overall) in 1997, said with a smile. "Hopefully, the outfield glove is all I need. Because that means we're at full strength."

Cuddyer says everything with a smile. Probably, you could tell him Mauer is stuck in traffic and could he please catch for the first five innings, and he'd grin and reach for the shin guards.

"He was a big reason why I chose to come back here," said designated hitter Jim Thome, who declined more money from Texas. "I love what he stands for. I respect him.

"He's what's good in the game."

In the Twins' perfect world, Cuddyer will play right field all summer and bat fifth. And Morneau will finally move past the post-concussion syndrome that continues to slow him in these early days of camp.

But if their world turns imperfect, well, Cuddyer is better than an umbrella policy.

"I take a lot of pride in that," said Cuddyer, a shortstop in high school in Chesapeake, Va. "I take ground balls at shortstop every day because if you can field them there, you can field them anywhere."

Last year, Cuddyer started 60 games in right field, one in center field, 13 at third base, one at second base (an emergency start when Orlando Hudson went down) and then saved Minnesota's bacon with 81 starts at first.

"Obviously, you hate for that to happen, because that means [Morneau] is hurt," he said. "But you get yourself in the mindset where you're just being a baseball player, rather than, 'Screw these guys, I'm an outfielder. They're not making me do this.' "

The phrase you hear most about Cuddyer is that he's a "baseball player." Thome says it. General manager Bill Smith says it. So does manager Ron Gardenhire.

Which leads to the question: What if he wasn't a baseball player? Then what?

"That's a different answer than if you would have asked me right when I started playing," Cuddyer said. "I think it would be cool to be a high school guidance counselor. Help kids shape their direction, what they want to go into. Athletics, academics, teaching, whatever.

"I think it would be cool to help kids discover their niche in life, maybe help save kids who need saving."

Original answer, back when he started playing? Physical therapist. But that was many years ago, and long before he met his wife, Claudia, who taught high school English back home in Virginia for six years before marrying Michael and delivering son Casey (2½). Among Claudia's students back then: Justin Upton, the current Arizona outfielder.

"I see how her former students come up and thank her for doing what she did," Cuddyer said. "They'll tell her how they love English now, things like that. I see the gratification on her face."

The Twins, of course, are thrilled Cuddyer is a baseball player, not a guidance counselor. And so are their fans, who stand a terrific chance of obtaining his autograph or of seeing a birthday wish re-tweeted (@mcuddy5).

"I try," Cuddyer said. "There's going to be lots and lots and lots of time when nobody is going to care about your autograph. When nobody is going to ask you about baseball.

"For the time I have right now, I feel honored to be able to make somebody's day by signing an autograph, or by re-tweeting something for somebody."

At 31, Cuddyer's production numbers slipped last summer to 14 homers and 81 RBI (as opposed to 32 and 94 in '09). But he also was playing all year on a sore knee on which he underwent arthroscopic surgery right after the season.

Turns out, he should have done it a year earlier. But rest was prescribed after '09 and, when the knee didn't improve, it was too close to spring training to get it fixed.

"I wasn't going to put the team in the position where I was unavailable, knowing I could just deal with it," said Cuddyer, who has been tripped up the past couple of days by a wart on his foot that needs removing.

Now he's entering the final year of his contract and the Twins so far have made no move toward opening conversations for an extension. They picked up his $10.5 million option for 2011 at the conclusion of a three-year, $24 million deal, but things are open after this. And with $37 million combined due Mauer and Morneau in 2012, who knows what payroll concessions will have to be made.

"My No. 1 priority is winning," Cuddyer said. "If you win, you're going to be playing somewhere."

He hopes it's in Minnesota. And so do his teammates.

"He's a guy you can always count on to do the right thing, say the right thing, be in the right place at the right time," Morneau said. Captain Cuddy. Nice.

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