FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) -Six years is a lifetime in baseball. Michael Cuddyer knows that now more than ever.
Cuddyer made a quick scan of the Minnesota Twins clubhouse when he arrived at spring training this week and came to a humbling realization - he is the only player left from the breakout playoff season in 2002.
Torii Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, Corey Koskie, Brad Radke, Johan Santana. Gone. Gone. Gone, gone, gone.
Cuddyer and that exuberant core of youngsters ended Minnesota's 11-year postseason drought that season, advancing to the AL championship series before losing to the eventual World Series champion Anaheim Angels.
Cuddyer is as surprised as anyone that he is the last one left. Just a few years ago, it looked as if he was on his way out of Minnesota, unable to find a position or even a spot in the batting order to call his own.
Now he is one of the anchors of the clubhouse. A fixture in right field with a new three-year, $24 million contract.
``Would it have surprised me if you told me that back then?'' Cuddyer asked when he thought about the exodus of players from that 2002 squad. ``Probably.''
The Twins had high hopes for Cuddyer from the beginning, when they selected him with the ninth overall pick in the 1997 draft. He worked his way up through the minors and was a September call-up in 2002, when he hit .385 in the division series victory over Oakland.
Just as quickly, the fast-rising prospect found himself on the bench with no hope in sight.
He bounced around from the infield to the outfield to a utility player in his first few stints with the big club, but was handed the third base job when Koskie left after 2004.
The former middle infielder struggled with the position change, and the experiment ended after 93 games when he was returned to a utility role. Cuddyer hit .263 with 12 homers, 93 strikeouts and 15 errors.
``I had a chance and I didn't play quite the way I wanted to play and didn't know where I stood going into '06,'' he said.
Backup catcher Mike Redmond spent plenty of time sitting next to Cuddyer on the bench, and the two became close friends while the veteran Redmond tried to keep Cuddyer's spirits up.
``I remember we were sitting there. He was kind of at a point where he was frustrated because he was wanting to play and I think Lew Ford was playing in front of him.
``We sat there and we were talking about playing and I told him, 'Just be ready. You're going to get some chances. The only way to get yourself out there to play is to be ready. Whether it's a pinch hit or defense, just be ready. Be mentally prepared for that and just do the best you can.'''
After a strong spring in 2006, Cuddyer still found himself behind Ford and Jason Kubel on the depth chart to start the season, until the 10th inning on April 19.
Cuddyer hit a game-winning, two-run homer off J.C. Romero and parlayed that big hit into an everyday job in right field during a 24-homer, 109-RBI year.
``I don't know the game logs, but I didn't sit too many days after that,'' he said. ``It was all the mentality of not worrying about myself. Just worrying about winning, worrying about the team and worrying about what WE did on the field and not what I did on the field.''
The former high school quarterback has a strong arm and has developed into one of the best right fielders in the game. He leads the AL in outfield assists since 2006 and has perfected playing the ball off the Metrodome's tricky baggie.
``We've moved him a lot, tried a lot of different things with him until we found out where he was most comfortable and where he fit in and I think you can see he's comfortable now,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said. ``He understands a little bit about himself and what he needs to do. ... I'm absolutely happy for him.''
Cuddyer has also solidified himself as a run producer in the middle of the lineup and emerged as a clubhouse leader in the wake of the departures of Hunter and Santana.
``I think for him what's been the best is that he hasn't had to look over his shoulder anymore,'' Redmond said. ``If you watch him play, he continues to get better and better and better. When you have guys like that, you still don't know how good he's going to be. His ceiling, he's not even halfway there.''

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