FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) – One by one, Michael Cuddyer has watched the teammates he grew up with in the Minnesota Twins organization head out the door.
Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins left in 2004. Doug Mientkiewicz, Corey Koskie and Cristian Guzman were next in 2005. Then Torii Hunter and Johan Santana departed in 2008. Finally this offseason, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Nick Punto signed elsewhere.
Now Cuddyer is the only one left from a group of players that turned the team from a perennial doormat into the dominant team of the AL Central with six division titles in the last nine seasons.
That means the 31-year-old, do-everything, pillar of the clubhouse has had to introduce himself to more new faces this spring than he has in a long time.
“A lot of turnover,” Cuddyer said. “This feels like when LaTroy was gone, Eddie was gone and Mientkiewicz was gone. But the guys that were replacing them were the guys I played with in the minor leagues so it was a little different. This year, Matty and Jesse and Nick, those are guys I hung out with 90 percent of the time.”
Guerrier and Crain, two of the team’s longtime relievers, went to the Dodgers and White Sox, respectively, while Punto, a valued utility man, signed with the Cardinals. They’ve been replaced by a bevy of new, young faces, players that Cuddyer is still getting to know.
It’s the circle of life in baseball. Younger, cheaper talent replaces older, more expensive veterans as the Twins look to sustain the success that started in 2002 when Mientkiewicz, Hunter, Koskie and Cuddyer helped the Twins win their first division title in a decade.
Cuddyer could be the next player to exit. He is in the final year of a three-year, $24 million extension he signed in 2008, and there have been no talks with his agent Casey Close yet about a new deal. He was a first-round pick of the Twins in 1997 and has made it clear he would like to be back, but he doesn’t want to negotiate a contract during the season.
“Casey knows I love this organization and, all things created equal, I want to be here for my whole career, no doubt,” Cuddyer said. “I’ve made no secret about that from Day 1.”
Through the years, the core around Cuddyer has changed, with Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer supplanting Hunter and Mientkiewicz.
“The thing is most of the core is still here,” Cuddyer said. “The nucleus is still here. Big pieces have now been subtracted and added. But the big pieces are still back.”
Through it all, Cuddyer has been the mainstay, a player as valuable for his versatility on the field and presence in the clubhouse as he is for his production at the plate.
“He’s really our leader,” veteran slugger Jim Thome said.
His best year came in 2009 when he hit 32 home runs, drove in 94 runs and played a stellar right field. His offensive numbers dropped last year in the first season in pitcher-friendly Target Field, but Cuddyer may have been even more valuable.
After cementing himself as the starting right fielder, Cuddyer was a jack-of-all trades for the injury plagued Twins in 2010. He played right field, third base and even once at second base before replacing the injured Morneau at first base for the final three months of the season.
Even with Morneau out, the Twins went 45-18 down the stretch to clinch their sixth AL Central title.
“I take a lot of pride in being able to be the guy that can fill in in a lot of places,” Cuddyer said. “I feel like I’m a baseball player. I don’t want to label myself as I can only do this or only do that.”
Add traffic cop to the list. Cuddyer has watched all the new arrivals wander around the team’s spring training facility, trying to figure out where they have to be and when they have to be there. That’s when he steps in and directs them this way or that, then sets the tone during workouts on the field.
Even though he is back full time in the outfield, Cuddyer joined Morneau and the rest of the first basemen at the beginning of the team’s first full-squad workout on Wednesday morning for the demanding “Good Morning America” drill. Manager Ron Gardenhire developed the routine to raise the infielders’ heart rates and get them used to playing under physically stressful conditions.
“If guys come in from other organizations, you try and play the game hard and hopefully that will rub off on people,” he said. “I wouldn’t say you do more. Then you’re trying too hard. You don’t want to try. You shouldn’t have to try.”
If this is his last year in Minnesota, Cuddyer is looking to go out a winner. He gives his teammates T-shirts every spring with a message he wants to deliver. This year’s model has big, bold, simple statement: “WIN!”
“You want to win right now,” Cuddyer said. “You want to win today and you worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes. There’s always tomorrows. You start looking too far in advance and you stop worrying about what’s going on right now. That’s what requires and demands most of your attention is right now.”
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