NEW YORK -- Michael Cuddyer came to the Mets last winter as a prized free agent, the type of player -- even in his mid-30s -- that the team believed could turn its offense into something fearsome. That vision never materialized, prompting Cuddyer to retire unexpectedly at age 36, halfway through his two-year, $21 million contract.
"I just knew I wasn't going to be able to give what I expect myself to give out on the field," Cuddyer said Saturday on a conference call. "I knew I could still bring leadership, and still bring qualities that can contribute. But I take a lot of pride in playing the game the right way, and playing the game the way that I know I was capable of playing. I didn't feel like I could bring that anymore. And with great humility, I made the decision."
It is unclear how much the Mets will pay of Cuddyer's $12.5 million 2016 salary as a buyout, as all $21 million of his deal was guaranteed. Cuddyer declined to discuss specifics of his situation, saying only that the Mets and chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon handled it "with tremendous respect and tremendous class the whole time."
Still, this was not what the Mets envisioned last offseason, when they liked Cuddyer enough to give him a two-year contract despite the Rockies' decision to extend him a qualifying offer (meaning the Mets needed to forfeit a first-round Draft pick to sign him). Their justification: Though Cuddyer had averaged just 93 games per year over his previous three seasons, he was productive when healthy, batting .307 with 46 home runs over that stretch.
Cuddyer's injuries continued in New York -- he missed time due to knee discomfort in July and ultimately underwent surgery to repair a core muscle injury in October -- but his production did not. In his age-36 season, Cuddyer hit just .259 with 10 home runs and a .699 OPS, losing significant playing time to rookie Michael Conforto down the stretch, then going 1-for-11 with seven strikeouts in the postseason. During the World Series, the Mets mostly confined Cuddyer to the bench. He made his decision to retire shortly afterward, around the time of his surgery.
"People thought I was disappointed," Cuddyer said. "People thought I was somber. I didn't really know how to approach those questions. For me, I signed with the Mets because I thought we had a chance to win. I believed the mix was there. I believed in the ownership and I believed in the front office to be able to get us over the hump. And all of those came to fruition. All of those came true.
"I didn't sign there to be the left fielder. I didn't sign there to be the right fielder or be the first baseman. I signed there to win."
Statistically, it was still a sputtering end to a solid career. A two-time All-Star, Cuddyer hit 197 homers over 14 seasons with the Twins, Rockies and Mets. He won a Silver Slugger Award as recently as 2013, when he hit .331 with 20 homers as a 34-year-old. Known throughout baseball for his character, Cuddyer also grew into a clubhouse leader at all of his stops. In Minnesota, he leaves a legacy as one of the better players in Twins history, retiring the same offseason as longtime teammates Torii Hunter and LaTroy Hawkins. Growing up in Virginia, he was a childhood acquaintance of Mets captain David Wright, who lobbied hard for Cuddyer to join the team as a free agent.
"You hear athletes say all the time they know when it's time," Wright said in a telephone interview on Saturday. "I think that he just knew. It's well-documented, the injury part of it. And he said it himself, it just took its toll on his body. But I would say probably more than that, he's such a strong family man. I think his kids are at an age where he just wants to be around more. And when that outweighs the desire … that's how he knew he was certain it was time. He doesn't have that itch."
"We salute Michael on his career and thank him for his contributions to our success in 2015," general manager Sandy Alderson added in a statement. "We wish him, [wife] Claudia and their kids all the health and happiness."
Cuddyer's time with the Mets may not have matched Wright's vision, but his retirement now provides the Mets with an unexpected measure of flexibility. His lost salary reduces the Mets' 2015 payroll from around $104 million to approximately $92 million, less the value of any buyout. As recently as Thursday, assistant general manager John Ricco said the Mets had enough resources available to acquire a center fielder, a fifth starter and a veteran reliever; Cuddyer's absence should only help New York in those pursuits.
Those decisions will come in time, as will Cuddyer's own choices about his future. A job in baseball could also suit him down the line, though Cuddyer said he has no immediate plans.
"I'm definitely looking forward to spending time at home," he said. "I'm definitely looking forward to being with my family right now, at least in the near future. If an opportunity presents itself that looks attractive, then we'll explore that. But right now, it's time for my wife to have a full-time husband, and for my kids to realize and play out their dreams with their dad around."