Last year when the Twins lost Justin Morneau to a stress fracture in his lower back on September 12th, they stood 5.5 games out of first place. But, bouyed by a late season hot streak from Morneau's replacement at first, Michael Cuddyer, they managed to come back to claim the division in a dramatic game 163. In Morneau's absence, Cuddyer hit .325 with a 1.073 OPS, slugging eight homeruns in 83 at-bats and driving in 24 runs in just 21 games. Or more simply put, he was a monster.
This year the Twins have again been without Morneau's services - this time since Mid July - and again they have surged in his absence. Hopefully no one is foolish enough to presume that Morneau being out of the Twins lineup is a good thing. We are after all talking about a guy who could've very well won his second MVP award this season had he not gone down with his concussion. Morneau was in the midst of his greatest offensive season ever with an OPS of 1.055 (best in the league at that time) that dwarfed his output from his 2006 campaign. Also important was that Morneau, once criticized by the organization as a defensive liability had developed into an elite defensive first baseman with a 18.0 UZR/150 before he went down.
That the Twins have played so well - they own baseball's best record since the all-star break and have won eleven of their past thirteen - however is the result not of Morneau's replacement, but in spite of him. Indeed, it's a testament to how much deeper and how much better the 2010 iteration of the Minnesota Twins is in comparison to the 2009 version.
After posting perhaps his best offensive season ever last year with a .862 OPS, 124 OPS+, and 3.0 oWAR, Cuddyer has struggled for most of 2010. More notably, since Morneau went down on July 7th, Cuddyer has posted an OPS of just .771, about 20 points below his career average. His bat has been particularly bad of late, with an OPS of just .680 since the beginning of August.
In addition, he's played a questionable first base, allowing multiple matchable balls to sail past while botching far more plays than anyone would like to see en route to a -4.4 UZR in just 62 games. Cuddyer's defensive struggles at first are forgivable - it's difficult after all to credibly criticize a player who is playing out of position because he's the only capable option. But it doesn't make the struggles any less glaring.
The Twins have been without Morneau's services for over two months now - far longer than anyone could've anticipated from a play that looked so benign. While they've fared far better than I think most would've anticipated without their best offensive player, any notion that they don't miss him terribly would be incorrect.
Michael Cuddyer deserves plenty of praise for he unselfish play he's displayed throughout his career, playing essentially anywhere and everywhere he's been asked. But the Twins need Morneau back. Not only for his bat, but for his defense. While Cuddyer is a capable player, the Twins will have a much easier time making a deep run into the playoffs with their regular first baseman than they would with his replacement.