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Updated: December 12th, 2011 9:25pm
Mackey: Allowing Cuddyer to walk could help Twins now and in future

Mackey: Allowing Cuddyer to walk could help Twins now and in future

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

As they continue to play the waiting game with free agent outfielder Michael Cuddyer, the Minnesota Twins are in a precarious position.

They appear to be caught somewhere between winning and building, even though it is possible to do both at the same time.

Approximately 40% of the team payroll is tied up in two players -- Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau -- which obligates the Twins to make a strong effort each year to win the division, even if Mauer and Morneau both come with giant question marks. That obligation holds even more strength when considering Target Field is entering only its third season. The Twins don't have a choice but to try and compete.

That's why general manager Terry Ryan and company are so interested in retaining Cuddyer's services.

At the same time, the Twins are a 99-loss team with flaws that run deeper than just injuries, and their farm system ranked 12th on Baseball America's annual list in 2011 -- rankings that were posted in March, before 2009 first-round pick Kyle Gibson succumbed to Tommy John surgery, and before the control of 2010 first-round pick Alex Wimmers went rogue. Baseball Prospectus was more pessimistic, ranking the Twins' farm system 15th -- again, prior to the Gibson and Wimmers setbacks.

It's probably only fair to also mention that Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario tore up Appalachian League last season, but Sano, 18, was already considered Baseball America's 60th-best prospect. His monster season (.292/.352/.637, 20 HR in 293 PA) was not necessarily unexpected.

By all measures, the Twins' farm system ranks mid-pack and could use an injection of high-end talent, which makes draft-pick compensation even more important.

And draft-pick compensation is exactly what the Twins are in a position to receive if Cuddyer signs with another team.

Cuddyer entered the offseason as a Type-A free agent, which in previous seasons might have limited his options in free agency even further. Under baseball's previous collective bargaining agreement, teams that signed Type-A free agents were forced to forfeit their first round picks (outside the top-15) to that player's old team.

Major League Baseball made tweaks to that system this year. Cuddyer is among a group of "modified" Type-A free agents that can sign with a new team without that team giving up its first-round draft pick.

Instead, if Cuddyer were to sign elsewhere, the Twins would receive the standard "sandwich" draft pick -- between the first and second rounds -- as well as a first-round draft pick one spot ahead of whichever team signs the right fielder.

The same applies to free agent outfielder Jason Kubel, who could earn the Twins a sandwich pick if he signs elsewhere, and closer Matt Capps, who also would have earned a sandwich pick for the Twins if he wouldn't have re-signed.

Let's be honest. Capps has been solid in three out of the last five seasons, but his arm is replaceable, especially when signing a comparable pitcher could also land a top-70 draft pick.

The same is true for Cuddyer, who is replaceable on the field if only because Josh Willingham, whom the Twins have been in contact with regularly over the past week, is the logical Plan B. The Twins can sign Willingham -- who owns a .257/.360/.479 batting line with 30 home runs and 91 RBIs per 162 games over the last three seasons -- without forfeiting a first-round pick.

Willingham, like Cuddyer, turns 33 this spring, so his age is a question. But other than the Twins' familiarity with Cuddyer and affinity for his leadership skills, Cuddyer really doesn't project to be any more valuable on the field than Willingham. In fact, the opposite might be true.

When asked at the winter meetings last week how much the Twins consider draft-pick compensation when deciding on retaining their own free agents, Ryan was honest.

"Not that much," he said. "We'll take it. But we'd rather have the player."

The Twins value Cuddyer for several reasons. He's versatile, he's a leader on the field and behind the scenes, he was perhaps the team's most productive hitter in 2011, he's a much-needed right-handed bat, and he's been in the organization since 1997 -- an organization that promotes and rewards loyalty.

But for a team trying to contend in 2012 while also building for the future, re-signing Cuddyer might not be the best move.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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