Cuddyer's versatility invaluable to Twins

Cuddyer's versatility invaluable to Twins

MINNEAPOLIS -- The longest-tenured and most-durable Minnesota Twin doubles as a superutility player.

Michael Cuddyer is the one player left on the current squad who dates back to the Twins' first AL Central title back in 2002. He's also their current starting first baseman who dates back to the season-opening right fielder, the late June third baseman, the June 13 center fielder and the May 31 second baseman.

He carries enough gloves in his locker that he might be confused with a supersub if those gloves weren't housed in one of the coveted corner lockers in the clubhouse reserved for veteran starters. He has played 1,005 games in a Twins uniform, and he has started everywhere but shortstop, catcher and pitcher.

And when he's asked if he even has a favorite position anymore, he has an easy answer.

"Wherever I am in the lineup," Cuddyer said Monday.

For that, he's a big reason why the Twins have been able to overcome injuries to Justin Morneau the last two years, and seemingly thrive without him this season.

"I am all about winning," Cuddyer explains further. "and whatever position [manager Ron Gardenhire] feels like he puts me at that day is going to help us win, I am all about. And, you know, right now obviously first base is where I prefer, just because I played there the last 80 or so games.

"It would be a little difficult moving over to third or something like that right now, but yeah, it doesn't matter to me."

It was a no-brainer for Gardenhire where to put Cuddyer when Morneau went down with a concussion on July 7 at Toronto. Cuddyer shifted over to first that night and started the next day. Nobody, though, could've anticipated that Cuddyer would've been at first this long, as Morneau's concussion proved to be a longer-term injury.

If they had anticipated, few would've expected the Twins to be where they are now, preparing to host a American League Division Series opener against the Yankees on Wednesday night at Target Field. Offensively, the credit is shared, from Cuddyer's consistent run production to Delmon Young's emergence as a feared hitter to Jim Thome's pure power.

Gardenhire would've had a lot less flexibility to move around his hitters in the lineup, however, if he couldn't move Cuddyer to first and keep him there, without a drop in production.

"Cuddy, people don't talk about him enough," Gardenhire said. "He is a special player. He is one of these guys that will do anything and play anywhere as long as he gets the opportunity to get out on the field to help the team win, and it's a big thing in this day and age.

"Guys want to be set at one position and stay there and establish themselves. And Cuddy wants to win ballgames. And I put him at third base, I put him at short, I put him at second, and now at first. And it was almost basically an All-Star right fielder with great numbers. So, you know what? People like that don't come along very often."

When they do, they can help a team into the postseason. Omar Infante became an All-Star, and the Braves became a playoff team, when he shifted around the infield and outfield for Atlanta's various injuries. But Infante wasn't an everyday player beforehand. Placido Polanco went from Gold Glove second baseman in Detroit to third baseman in Philadelphia, but he knew the plan when he signed.

Cuddyer seemingly does it on the fly. Technically, he didn't shift to first base from right field. He shifted across the infield from third, where he had been playing since mid-June. He went there during Interleague Play so that the Twins could keep Jason Kubel in their lineup without the designated hitter slot available.

A few weeks before that, after Orlando Hudson was injured in a collision with Denard Span, Cuddyer help conspire a way to help them fill in for Hudson and still maintain some offensive continuity. Cuddyer started for Hudson at second base the next night in Seattle. A couple weeks later, he started in center field to help Gardenhire give Span a rare day off.

Add it up, and Cuddyer has played more games, and more positions, than anyone on the team this year.

"Coming over here and seeing his versatility at pretty much every position has impressed me," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "The fact that he goes out there and he plays every single day, never needs a day off, and just goes out there and grinds his way through the season is another thing that's really impressed me."

All the while, Cuddyer has maintained his usual production at the plate. Though his 14 home runs are less than half of his 2009 total, partly a product of Target Field, Cuddyer drove in 81 runs, almost evenly split between the first and second halves.

"He's really been a savior to the team," infielder Nick Punto said, "in the sense that Justin Morneau, arguably our best player, 2006 MVP, to be able to step into those shoes and us not only not miss a beat, but play better, is pretty incredible. He's done such a fantastic job. So durable. He plays every day. He's been huge. There's not a lot of guys out there that can do that."

Cuddyer not only is willing to move around, he prepares for it. He takes ground balls at third base during pregame batting practice. Sometimes, he'll shift over to short and second and take ground balls there.

"He's superathletic," Punto continued. "If you remember, he was the starting second baseman in the 2004 playoffs against the Yankees. That tells you how athletic he is."

Cuddyer was a 25-year-old infielder then, getting regular playing time for the first time in his career. He's 31 and established now. His attitude hasn't changed.

"As long as Gardy believes that putting me there gives us a chance to win," Cuddyer said, "I am all for it."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.