Commentary

Cuddyer's value rises with Rockies

Updated: December 16, 2011, 4:53 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

If we, the fantasy owners, had it our way, every free-agent hitter would sign with the Colorado Rockies or Texas Rangers.

This game, after all, is all about numbers, and there are no two greater venues for a hitter to play in than Colorado's Coors Field or Texas' Rangers Ballpark. They ranked two and one in terms of both runs scored and home runs in 2011 on our Park Factors page.

[+] EnlargeMichael Cuddyer
Kyle Terada/US PresswireMichael Cuddyer's move from pitcher-friendly Minnesota to known hitters' haven Colorado will boost his value.

That's why news like Friday's, that Michael Cuddyer has agreed to a three-year deal with the Rockies, per ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick, excites us. Cuddyer has never really been regarded a fantasy superstar, ranking 95th overall on last season's Player Rater, though eighth at second base, but his arrival in Coors could be just what he needs to earn universal regard as a top-100-overall fantasy player.

Playing the past two seasons with Minnesota's Target Field as his home ballpark, Cuddyer batted a combined .277 while averaging 17 homers, 76 RBIs and 82 runs scored. Per 162 games played, those would be .277-19-83-90 numbers. Target, however, rated a pitcher-friendly venue in each of its first two seasons of existence, and there's no doubt that Coors will significantly boost his offensive potential.

Think about this: In the two years that Target Field has been in existence, Rockies hitters have averaged home runs on 10.7 percent of fly balls put in play, and 39.5 percent of those judged as hard contact. Twins hitters, by comparison, have homered on 7.6 percent of their fly balls, and 27.8 percent judged as hard contact. Examining only home games, meanwhile, the Rockies' numbers in those categories were 12.5 and 42.0, the Twins' numbers 6.4 and 22.6.

Cuddyer also seemed to be more of a fly ball slugger before Target Field opened than since; he hit a fly ball on 36.6 percent of his balls in play from 2006 to 2009, but only 33.2 percent of the time in 2010 and 2011. Random fluctuation could have contributed, but isn't it possible that, even if only slightly, he put less emphasis on power and more on driving the ball to the gaps?

Put it together and Cuddyer could be capable of 25-plus homers or perhaps even 30, which might be what he needs to reach the aforementioned top-100 status. In fact, if there's any obstacle to him getting there, it's that he might not earn second-base eligibility with the Rockies as quickly as he did with the Twins. Unfortunately, Cuddyer appeared in only 17 games at second base in 2011, not enough to qualify there in ESPN standard leagues on draft day, and will require 10 games there in-season.

That means Cuddyer must be judged as both a first baseman, where the richness in talent places him only 15th in my rankings, and outfielder, where he'd slot in 35th. It means he's just outside my top 100, though by only 12 spots, and the case can certainly be made he'd be worth drafting within it.

Josh Willingham lands in Minnesota

[+] Enlarge Josh Willingham
Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireJosh Willingham, who hit 29 home runs last season, moves from one pitchers' park to another.

The Twins apparently have their replacement for Cuddyer already, as Josh Willingham signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the team on Thursday, according to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick. Willingham probably takes over in right field, allowing Ben Revere and his poor arm to shift to left.

In terms of hitting numbers, Willingham probably won't fare any differently for the Twins than he did previously with the Oakland Athletics, Washington Nationals or Florida Marlins. Generally speaking, Willingham has spent his career in pitching-friendly venues, so another shouldn't bother him, and he's a noted fly ball hitter whose numbers won't change much at his new ballpark. To that point, Willingham has hit fly balls 50.1 percent of the time when he puts the ball in play the past three seasons combined, and 28.9 percent of those were judged hard contact.

This is a 25-homer-a-year slugger so long as he's healthy enough to get there, the primary knock on him his propensity for strikeouts, which assures a .260 batting average a probable best-case scenario annually.

It's Willingham's defense, however, that's of concern to fantasy owners of Twins pitchers. The team already added Ryan Doumit as a free agent, meaning more names you'd rather see at designated hitter than in the field, and there's no telling how often either Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau, both of whom dealt with injuries in 2011, might need to slot in at DH. Willingham might get most of his playing time in right field, and as he had the eighth-worst UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games played, per FanGraphs) among outfielders who played at least 800 innings in the field last season, he's a liability. It's almost as if the Twins replaced Delmon Young, he of the minus-11.0 career UZR/150, with … a Delmon Young clone.

The primary reason that's a worry: Scott Baker, one of the Twins' top three starters, is a noted fly baller. He has served up fly balls 50.5 percent of the time the past three seasons combined, and his 44.1 percent rate in 2011 ranked 12th among pitchers who faced at least 500 batters. If his BABIP rises north of .300 and his ERA/WHIP suffers slightly for it, don't be completely shocked.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.