- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Colorado Rockies were looking to add an established middle-of-the-order bat and a stabilizing influence to their roster when they signed longtime Minnesota Twins fixture Michael Cuddyer to a three-year, $31.5 million deal in December.
General manager Dan O'Dowd knew he was acquiring a dedicated professional, respected teammate and a prince of a guy. Little did he realize that he had also snagged the King of Hearts.
Cuddyer's production and versatility are part of the package, obviously. But he also is earning raves in camp as a combination social director and sleight-of-hand artist, dazzling his new teammates with a wide array of card tricks. Infielder Chris Nelson is so captivated by the routine, he practically tackles Cuddyer on his way through the clubhouse door each day at Salt River Fields.
"He's blowing guys' minds here,'' Jason Giambi said of Cuddyer. "[The tricks] are as good as any I've ever seen, and trust me, I live in Vegas and I get to see a lot of those shows. They're pretty incredible.''
Cuddyer, 32, began doing the tricks as a preteen in his native Virginia and eventually added some non-card-related magic to his repertoire. For baseball purposes, the hobby is less a diversion than a team-bonding mechanism.
"It gives me a chance to do something everyone universally loves,'' Cuddyer said. "But it also gives me an 'in' with a lot of guys and leads to other conversations. After a while the card tricks get old, but the guys know who I am and I know who they are because of it. It's almost like when you're at a bar and you see a girl and you want to buy her a drink. It's an icebreaker.''
Now that the Cactus League ice is officially broken, Rockies manager Jim Tracy will probably plug Cuddyer into the No. 6 spot in the order behind Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton. For his next trick, Cuddyer will try to make baserunners disappear and help transform a fourth-place team into a division title contender.
The Rockies were a fashionable pick in the NL West last year, but several disappointing performances contributed to their undoing. Ubaldo Jimenez got off to a terrible start -- in large part because he was preoccupied with his contract status, the Rockies believe -- and was packed off to Cleveland in a July deadline trade. Ian Stewart looked lost from day one, and Colorado's third basemen ranked 25th in the majors with a .629 OPS. Thanks to a combination of injuries and instability in the rotation, 13 pitchers made at least one start, and the Rockies ranked 15th in the NL with a team ERA of 4.43. The Rockies also went a sorry 10-26 against San Francisco and Arizona on their way to a 73-89 record.
During the winter months, O'Dowd did a strategic roster makeover to turn a young, overwhelmingly homegrown contingent into a more veteran group. Stewart, Chris Iannetta, Seth Smith, Huston Street and Jason Hammel (all 29 and younger) are among the players who've departed, and Cuddyer, Casey Blake, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez and Jeremy Guthrie (all 32 and older) have assumed prominent roles in Colorado.
Among 10 pitchers competing for spots in the starting rotation this spring, you can also find 49-year-old Jamie Moyer -- aka "Old Man Salt River.''
I would be foolish to stand here and lie and say [money] didn't enter into it, but by no means did I just take the highest bidder. It may look like that, but it's not what happened. The level of commitment the Rockies showed me was more than what the Twins were able to do.
”-- Michael Cuddyer
If the moves help alter the culture in camp, so much the better. Years ago, O'Dowd abandoned the notion that a single player can assume the role of team leader. But he's convinced that teams are more likely to maximize their potential with players who are accountable, see the big picture and try to be "difference-makers'' by taking ownership of more than their personal stats. He saw that sense of cohesion develop when the Rockies reached the World Series in 2007 and made the playoffs as a wild-card team two years later.
"I felt like every day our players showed up in '07 and '09, it was never about them,'' O'Dowd said. "They showed up with the mindset, 'I know I need to perform, but I'm going to love my teammate and make sure I'm there for him.' In the years we lost, it was never there. We're never going to sustain anything in a mid-market setting unless that's part of our DNA.
"Bringing in Cuddyer was a huge part of that. Not only is he a good player -- and will be for a significantly long period of time -- but if you talk to anybody in the game, he innately just 'gets it.' He challenges people in his own way to be all about the team.''
In hindsight, O'Dowd characterizes Colorado's new look as more a series of isolated incidents than an orchestrated plan to become a more veteran club. The pieces just happened to fit, from a short-term and a long-range perspective.
• The Rockies have a promising third baseman in the pipeline in Nolan Arenado, who hit .298 with 20 homers and 122 RBIs for Class A Modesto at age 20, then won the Arizona Fall League MVP award. They concluded that Stewart desperately needed a change of scenery, so they traded him to the Cubs and brought in Blake as a short-term bridge to Arenado.
Blake and Cuddyer played together for Minnesota's Triple-A farm team, the Edmonton Trappers, in 2002. They sit side by side on a far wall of the Rockies' clubhouse next to Arenado and Brandon Wood, the former Angels prospect who is in camp as a non-roster invite.
• The Rockies have two catching prospects, Wilin Rosario and Jordan Pacheco, who are close to the big leagues. So when Angels GM Jerry Dipoto called during the winter and expressed interest in Iannetta, the Rockies dealt him to Los Angeles for pitcher Tyler Chatwood. Then they signed Hernandez, 35, to help nurture a young pitching staff and mentor the kids until they're ready to assume a bigger load.
• O'Dowd was prepared to keep outfielder Smith, even though his playing time was destined to slip with Cuddyer in right field, Dexter Fowler in center and Carlos Gonzalez in left. But when the A's offered pitchers Josh Outman and Guillermo Moscoso in a package deal, the Rockies saw a chance to add pitching depth and give Smith a shot at a more expanded role in Oakland.
"Every player we traded, we thought we put them into a better situation than they had here,'' O'Dowd said.
• The Rockies always liked Scutaro because of his energy, contact-hitting prowess and ability to hit leadoff. When Boston made Scutaro available in January in a salary dump, O'Dowd said the veteran infielder "fell into our laps.''
One after the other, the offseason moves helped change the look of the team and send a message to the young players in Colorado.
"I'm close with the front office here and they've been up front with me since day one,'' Tulowitzki said. "I didn't know the exact guys who were going to be moved, but I knew there would be a different feel to this team, and there definitely is.''
Among other things, Tulowitzki thinks the changes have made a statement to Colorado's homegrown players that job security can be fleeting.
"We had some good years with homegrown guys, but we had years where it was almost like there was no one pushing us,'' Tulowitzki said. "If you were the best player at your position, unless a guy in the system was better than you, it was your job. And a comfort level kind of set in.
"It shouldn't ever get to that point. You should have more pride in yourself to be the best player you possibly can. But there were some guys who were just happy to be in the big leagues and not trying to maximize their ability.''
Playing their cards right
Depending on your vantage point, the Rockies' investment in Cuddyer was either a coup or a drastic overpay. He is universally acknowledged to have great intangibles. But $31.5 million is a significant expenditure in a corner outfielder with a .794 career OPS and one All-Star appearance.
O'Dowd was resigned to overpaying, because Cuddyer's inherent loyalty to the Twins was bound to enter the equation. But in reality, the emotional tug of Minnesota had waned in recent years. Many of Cuddyer's longtime teammates and closest friends -- such as Torii Hunter, Nick Punto, Mike Redmond, Jim Thome, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain -- had vacated the premises. In the end, some of Cuddyer's closest ties were to the front office and the people who worked around Target Field.
During the free-agent process, the Rockies made a spirited recruiting pitch. O'Dowd, owner Dick Monfort, manager Jim Tracy and Tulowitzki all called to sell Cuddyer on the idea of coming to Colorado, and their message resonated. Cuddyer took Colorado's deal over a reported three-year, $25 million offer from Minnesota.
"I would be foolish to stand here and lie and say [money] didn't enter into it, but by no means did I just take the highest bidder,'' Cuddyer said. "It may look like that, but it's not what happened. It never got to the point with the Twins where I sat down and said 'I'm torn.' The level of commitment the Rockies showed me was more than what the Twins were able to do.''
So now Cuddyer is in Colorado, ready to do whatever is necessary. In Minnesota, Cuddyer bailed the Twins out of jams by playing multiple positions. He filled the role of media spokesman when Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau encountered various problems. And he was a stickler for moving baserunners, hitting cutoff men and playing the type of fundamentally sound baseball that defines winners. He's committed to passing along that mentality to younger players.
"It's not always being the sheriff or letting a guy know when he's doing something wrong or fixing or changing a guy,'' Cuddyer said. "Sometimes it's giving a guy a hug or pumping him up and telling him he did a good job or helping him find a pediatrician for his kids -- or just helping him with life. It's being that presence in the clubhouse guys can lean on, so they're not scared to ask a question no matter how dumb or stupid they might look.
"When people in the outside world are looking in, they don't realize we're not just baseball cards. We're people just like everybody else is. We have real problems like everybody else does and we need people to lean on like everybody else does. When you have guys in the clubhouse who can do that, it's going to make you a stronger team and organization.''
That concept might sound new-age, touchy-feely and a little too "Dr. Phil'' for baseball hardliners. But the Rockies discovered they could only go so far on talent. With Cuddyer in the mix, they're about to show the baseball world if they have a little something extra up their sleeve.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.