Simply Baseball Notebook: Cover Stories

Put Me in Coach!

May 2004

Certainly Uncertain:
Cuddyer & Punto deal with life as Utility Players

On any given night, they may sit on the bench for seven innings before being called upon to pinch hit and play second base. The next day, they could be starting in centerfield. The day after that, they might not play at all. Such is the life of the utility player, where the only certainty is uncertainty.

Mike Cuddyer

"(I have to) be prepared," explained Michael Cuddyer, whom the Minnesota Twins have dubbed their "super utility" player. "(It's tough) not knowing where I am going to be playing and, if I start, where I will be finishing the game. I do a lot of preparing on the field before the game, in batting practice, stuff like that."

Cuddyer, the Twins first round draft pick (9th overall) out of high school in 1997, has dominated at the minor league level since 2001. Yet despite that, he has not received consistent playing time in the big leagues. Still without an everyday position available for him, the Twins have developed a role for the 25-year-old that includes playing first, second, and third base, as well as rightfield.

The constant shuffling has caused the Virginia native to develop an identity crisis. Originally drafted as a shortstop, Cuddyer says he "outgrew" that position. When asked where he would like to play now, he responded, "Shoot, I don't even know at this point," and added he is happy to play wherever the team needs him.

Cuddyer may be confused about where he belongs on the diamond, but the utility role has allowed him to hone his mind reading skills. "I've been on the bench the last couple years and know when certain situations come up that Gardy (manager Ron Gardenhire) is about to put me in," he explained. "I read those situations and prepare myself accordingly."

Nick Punto

While Cuddyer became property of the Twins as a much ballyhooed first round draft pick, fellow utility man Nick Punto joined the organization under much more unusual circumstances. "I was at the dentist office, in the chair, getting a cavity filled when (Phillies GM) Ed Wade called me and I happened to answer the phone," Punto explained. "When he told me (I'd been traded to the Twins), I was all numbed up and kinda out of it."

Punto had spent the past six seasons in the Phillies organization before coming to the Twins in the trade that sent former All Star Eric Milton to Philadelphia last December. In parts of three seasons with the Phillies, he appeared in 77 big league games, splitting time between second and third base as well as shortstop.

The Twins plan to use the 26-year-old in a similar capacity, but have added a new twist. The 5-9 Punto will also back up Torii Hunter in centerfield -- a position he had played only a few innings of way back in Spring Training of 2002.

On April 7, before his first start in centerfield, Punto downplayed the difficulties of learning this new position. "The ball comes off the bat a little bit different," he explained, "other than that you just rely on your instincts more out there."

He did, however, acknowledge that the constant shuffling of positions does present its' share of challenges, especially during batting practice. "(You have to) make sure you get all of your work in, your groundballs at second, third, and short, and then get your fly balls (in the outfield). There's almost not enough time in the day."

Unlike Cuddyer, he does have a preference on where he would like to play. "I just want to play out there, but my natural position is shortstop." he said. "I would definitely be happy to be a shortstop everyday."

He may just get that chance. The Twins current starting shortstop, the enigmatic Christian Guzman, is in the final year of his contract. He is slated to make roughly $3 million this season, and may be too expensive for the budget-conscience Twins to afford in 2005. With a strong showing this season, Punto may get his chance as an everyday shortstop in the not-too-distant future.

Cuddyer's days as a utility player also appear numbered. Regular third baseman Corey Koskie is in the last year of his contract and has been inconsistent and injury prone, while trade rumors continuously swirl around rightfielder Jacque Jones. If either position were to open, Cuddyer would assuredly be a leading candidate to take over.

For now though, each player will continue to cram several gloves in his locker, take extra infield and outfield practice, and stay ready to run, hit, or take the diamond at any position in a moment's notice.

-David Zingler

Cuddyer's page @ Baseball-Almanac.com

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