Senior Baseball Columnist

If nothing else, Cuddyer signing an upgrade to 2011 Rockies


Michael Cuddyer is a presence in the clubhouse, and he'll also hit 20-plus home runs. (Getty Images)  
Michael Cuddyer is a presence in the clubhouse, and he'll also hit 20-plus home runs. (Getty Images)  

Proof that there is absolutely no explaining free agency came from the Rocky Mountains on Friday morning.

Just days after his wife delivered twins, lifelong Twin Michael Cuddyer bade farewell to ... the Twins.

So congratulations to Colorado on clinching the Most Ironic Free Agent Signing of the winter.

Could the NL West be next?

Until the Rockies add some starting pitching, they won't even clinch the spring title for best team at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. The co-inhabitants of their spring facility in Scottsdale, Ariz., the Diamondbacks, remain the team to beat in the division. But the Rockies are on the move.

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Their acquisition of free-agent catcher Ramon Hernandez gave them an immediate upgrade behind the plate. Cuddyer gives them a big bat, versatility and a true pro in the clubhouse. That last part won't win you a race deep into October, but it can help fuel that run. Look what Lance Berkman did for the Cardinals in 2011.

Not only did he produce a big bounce-back year, but Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak and the rest of the team were absolutely blown away by what Berkman brought to the clubhouse in terms of positive attitude and energy. Ace Chris Carpenter was ebullient in October discussing how this was the best clubhouse mix and best group of players with which he had ever been involved.

Talk to him and others involved in St. Louis' epic September/October run and they will guarantee that the bond this special team developed fueled its sprint to the World Series.

Nobody is getting carried away here and predicting the Rockies as serious October players. Not with Jhoulys Chacin and Jason Hammel currently projecting as their top two starters.

But general manager Dan O'Dowd is having a very good winter.

If he can add another strong arm or two, he has a chance at a great winter. He has already added rotation depth by acquiring Kevin Slowey from Minnesota and Tyler Chatwood from the Angels (in the Chris Iannetta deal).

Part of the Rockies' crushingly disappointing 2011 (73-89) stemmed from a clubhouse culture that was shocking in how quickly it went south.

To that end, part of this winter's goal isn't simply to add guys who reach base frequently.

"I think where it begins is involving yourself with specific individuals," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said in Dallas during the winter meetings last week.

Cuddyer will not become an instant team leader, because that's not how it works in a new guy's first days on the job (plus, that's still part of Todd Helton's job description).

But he immediately makes the Rockies better both on the field and in the clubhouse. And though the Twins saved themselves some $10 million over three years by signing Josh Willingham, they will badly miss their De facto team captain. They will have less of a sense of who they are.

Two Octobers ago, as the Yankees were scorching the Twins (again) in the playoffs, it was Cuddyer who (again) soothed things for teammates by maintaining as their spokesman. Three straight games, the Twins would get whipped, Joe Mauer and even the ever-loquacious Orlando Hudson wanted no part of explaining things, and Cuddyer would step up for wave after wave of media.

Last summer, with Justin Morneau's battles with injuries continuing and Mauer injured (again) and avoiding the spotlight, it was Cuddyer who again embraced the role of elder statesman/club dignitary and explained (or tried to) night after night how the Twins were careening to a 99-loss disaster of a season. It wore on him, and it wasn't fair the way Mauer and Co. ducked responsibility.

The Twins say Morneau's battle with concussions is under control as of now and they're anticipating he'll play first the majority of the time. But he and Mauer both will be so busy staying on the field, it's hard to see either stepping into the unofficial role of team captain that Cuddyer held.

Meanwhile, in Colorado. ...

"I don't like to spend as much time in the clubhouse as I did last year," Tracy said. "But if ... some of these little fires that we're talking about don't get put out, then I've got to walk out there. Because I don't like that. I don't want that in my clubhouse."

Dexter Fowler regressed last year to the point where he needed a kick in the pants via a minor-league demotion. Not that all of the Rockies' problems emanated from there. Ubaldo Jimenez was bitterly disappointing and was dealt to Cleveland, and there were other issues. Cuddyer is one of those guys Fowler -- and others -- can watch and learn from.

No, Cuddyer can't pitch. And the Rockies still are weak at second base (Eric Young? D.J. LeMahieu?) and third (Jordan Pacheco?).

But what he can do for the Rockies is hit (20 homers and 70 RBI last year even while playing in Target Field, which heavily favors pitchers), and he should hit exceedingly well at altitude (in the Twins' final season in the moonscape Metrodome two summers ago, he smashed 32 homers and had 94 RBI). He can play the corner outfield spots, spell Helton at first, even plug in at second in a pinch.

Anytime you're building a team around Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, you're several steps ahead of everyone else.

O'Dowd's work so far has put the Rockies several steps beyond their disappointing 16-games-under .500 finish last year. Both on the field ... and in the clubhouse.

"Take the baton and run with it," Tracy said in Dallas. "Let's engage one another. And let's get it to the point where, if something isn't the way we want to see it done as Colorado Rockies, somebody step forward and address it. And maybe some of these things won't even make their way back to my office, and I won't have to walk out there."

With Cuddyer and Hernandez, bingo.


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