Nelson Cruz, for all his power, might not have the sheer number of possible free-agent landing spots available as his younger peers, like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, or his more versatile ones, like Marwin Gonzalez. But with the right team, the Boomstick could make all the difference.
That team is out there. But which one is it?
Three main clubs have been linked to Cruz this offseason -- the Rays, Twins and Astros. All would be good fits. But one stands out as the best: Houston.
The Astros are interested, too. In a column for The Athletic on Saturday (subscription required), MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal reported the Astros are talking to Cruz as they look to add an impact hitter. The Rays and Twins are interested, as well. So the Astros would have competition for Cruz's services. They should make every effort to ensure they win it.
Cruz and the Astros are a perfect match. Here's why.
The Astros have the clearest window
The slugging Cruz was worth every penny to the Mariners over the last four seasons, as his 163 home runs since joining Seattle in 2015 lead the Majors. Cruz hit at least 37 homers in each of his seasons with the Mariners; he and Colorado's Nolan Arenado are the only players with 35-plus homers every year since '15.
Cruz provided remarkable power and consistency. But the 38-year-old didn't see a single playoff game during his Seattle tenure. Despite coming close twice with the Rangers earlier in his career, Cruz has yet to win a World Series. The Astros would give him a great shot.
The Astros, of course, are coming off back-to-back 100-win seasons and their World Series win in 2017. Some key players are now free agents, but their superstar core is intact. The Rays, although they surprised with 90 wins in '18, don't have that same star-studded roster. If Cruz signed with Tampa Bay, he would be the lineup's star hitter. If he signed with the Astros, he'd be a star hitter among many. Meanwhile, the Twins -- who, like the Rays, were a recent surprise success, but in '17 -- are likely the farthest away of the three from a World Series bid.
Houston's win-now ability lends itself to a Cruz signing from the team's perspective, too. Cruz's age might preclude a deal with a more up-and-coming club, which might reasonably worry that Cruz would decline by the time it was ready to seriously contend. But the Astros don't need to worry about that. They're a juggernaut already, and recent historical comparisons for Cruz suggest he can sustain his power into the immediate future, even while approaching age 40. If the Astros think Cruz is the missing piece that could help put them over the top in 2019, they should pursue him without hesitation. And that's exactly what Cruz is.
Cruz is an ideal complement to the Astros lineup
As great as the Astros have been, two of the things their offense could use most are a prototypical masher and a reliably productive designated hitter. Or, to put it another way, one of the things the Astros' offense could most use is Cruz.
In both 2017 and '18, the DH spot was not Houston's strength. Carlos Beltran was the team's primary DH in '17, and he posted a 77 Weighted Runs Created Plus in that role -- 100 is MLB-average production, so Beltran was 23 percent below average as a DH. This past season, Evan Gattis had the most at-bats at DH, and he had a 99 wRC+. For '19, the Astros' best current option looks like Tyler White, who was excellent in limited DH games in August and September. But White is no Cruz.
Cruz's wRC+ in 144 games as a DH in 2018 was 134. In 155 games at DH in '17, it was 147. Combined over the two seasons, Cruz posted a 141 wRC+ at the DH position. So, reliable DH? Check. Now, for the type of hitter Cruz is and why that fits with Houston.
The Astros have a number of great hitters. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and George Springer are stars. They can all hit for power, too. But Cruz is a true slugger. His No. 1 job is to be a home run threat in the middle of the order. As great as Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Springer are, that is not their primary function within Houston's lineup.
Altuve has slugged over .500 twice in his career (in 2016 and '17). Bregman just did it for the first time. Correa has done it twice (in '15 and '17) and Springer once (in '17). Cruz has slugged over .500 six years in a row -- and he's also hit more than 30 homers for five years in a row. Bregman ('18) and Springer ('17) are the only Astros with one 30-homer season.
Consider the type of contact Cruz makes. Statcast™ has a metric, "barrels," for batted balls hit with optimal combinations of exit velocity and launch angle. They're the most likely to be a home run, or an extra-base hit. Cruz has the second-most barrels of any MLB hitter since Statcast™ began tracking in 2015 -- his 247 trail only J.D. Martinez's 251. He's also the only hitter with at least 50 barrels in all four seasons of Statcast™ tracking.
No Astros player has had a 50-barrel season. Springer came closest, with 49 in 2016; he and Altuve are the only ones to reach the 40-barrel mark. Cruz hits at the most dangerous level of contact quality in a way that makes him a different animal from what the Astros have right now.
Cruz would add a new dimension to an already deep Houston offense. A lineup with his name surrounded by those other four would be one of the most complete, and dangerous, in baseball.