The Minnesota Twins, limping to the finish line of what may go down as the most disappointing season in team history, still have one more way to make an impact on 2021 pennant races. Unlike many clubs who are either clear buyers or on the bubble, the 40-54 Twins are clear sellers. And unlike the handful of unsuccessful teams who might like to sell but have little to offer, the Twins have made it to this point with plenty of talent on their roster.
They may or may not trade Josh Donaldson, Taylor Rogers, Byron Buxton or José Berríos, who all have additional years remaining on their contracts. Maybe they’ll see what they can get for Andrelton Simmons, Hansel Robles and Michael Pineda, who are all on expiring contracts. But if there’s a slam-dunk trade option, it’s the 41-year-old designated hitter still mashing at an elite level, who lacks no-trade protection, will be a free agent in October and can’t be given a Qualifying Offer.
There’s no real reason for seven-time All-Star Nelson Cruz to be in Minnesota in two weeks, and he likely won’t be.
"I don't like to think about it," Cruz said earlier this month. "I try to think about it only when they ask me. I try to stay focused, like I said, on what I can control. I cannot control that. I'll show up every day with that mentality to win games and be ready for the games and let other things just take care of themselves."
That’s perfectly fair, from his perspective, though the Twins' front office can’t approach it the same way. Where will he be playing? Who will he help the most? And what can the Twins expect to get back for him?
Cruz is still mashing
We talk a lot in baseball about what happens when a player turns 30, so you can imagine what teams might be thinking about a hitter who turned 41 on July 1. Still, Cruz is hitting .299/.375/.545, good for a 155 OPS+, and this is a pretty tough leaderboard to look past:
Best hitters, 2019-21 (using wRC+)
176 -- Mike Trout
158 -- Cruz
154 -- Juan Soto
150 -- Alex Bregman
Push it back to 2018, and he’s sixth-best. Back to 2017? Fifth-best. Now, perhaps you don’t care that much about that many years back at this point, and that’s fair, but even if you just look at 2020-21, he’s sixth-best there too. In 2021, his .299/.375/.545 line is all the way down to 15th-best, though even that can be reconsidered if you choose to; in June, he was the second-best hitter in the sport, tied with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., behind only Shohei Ohtani. While he’s slumping a little to start July, that’s hardly a concern.
But what teams will do, mostly, is look under the hood. They’ll want to see if he’s still hitting the ball hard. (He’s 11th in hard-hit rate.) They’ll want to see if he’s striking out more. (He’s actually cut his strikeout rate more than almost anyone else in baseball.) They’ll ask if he’s having trouble elevating. (His ground-ball rate is essentially his career average.) They’ll wonder if he’s losing bat speed as he ages, and one way to do that is to see what’s happening against fastballs above 95 mph. (He’s slugging .589.)
They’ll go a lot deeper than we’re about to here, but they’ll look at this pretty chart full of Statcast percentiles and see that he still rates excellently in many of them.
At 41, it’s perfectly reasonable to worry about what Cruz can do in 2022, ’23 or ’24. But if you’re trading for him for the next two months, that’s not really much of a concern.
What do you get for him?
The next question is: What will it cost? Cruz is making $13 million this year, which will mean something like $4 million remaining if he’s traded at the end of July. That’s not a sum that should scare off most teams, but it’ll at least be a consideration, though most of our likely suitors aren’t near the Competitive Balance Tax threshold.
A good place to start is in 2017, when Detroit traded J.D. Martinez, himself a talented righty hitter on an expiring contract who was limited defensively, to Arizona. It’s not exactly the same -- Martinez could and can play a little outfield, which Cruz probably cannot, hence the trade to an AL team -- but it’s similar, anyway. Detroit received three Arizona prospects (ranked Nos. 4, 15, and not at all in Arizona’s system). The deal was widely panned at the time; four years later, only one remains in the Tigers system, and none has a bright Major League present or future.
Two years later, the Tigers traded another powerful righty-hitting outfielder who fits best as a DH in Nick Castellanos, who went to the Cubs. (Again: a poor outfielder, but not an unplayable one.) This time, they got back two pitching prospects, one of whom, Alex Lange, has struck out 21 in 17 Major League innings this year, albeit with a 6.88 ERA. That same year, the Mariners traded a player more similar to Cruz in Edwin Encarnacion to the Yankees, bringing back New York’s No. 27 overall prospect, pitcher Juan Then.
It won’t be a franchise-changing trade, anyway. But it might bring back some interesting prospects. After all, the Twins didn’t look great in 2018 when they traded Ryan Pressly to Houston, only to watch him blossom into one of baseball’s best relievers. They still might wish they hadn’t done that, but the return now looks better than it did; outfielder Gilberto Celestino is Minnesota’s No. 6 prospect, and pitcher Jorge Alcala has appeared in 55 games for the Twins, thanks in part to a blazing fastball.
Where will he go?
Sometimes, we like to do a countdown from No. 29 to No. 1 on these things, but the particulars of Cruz's situation makes it simple to cut out half of those teams right away.
29-15: The entire National League
Cruz isn’t just a 41-year-old DH. He’s a 41-year-old DH who hasn’t touched his glove since 2018, or played more than 30 innings on defense in a season since 2016. It’s not like a National League team couldn’t add him to its bench as a pinch-hitter -- the Dodgers got 38-year-old Jim Thome from the White Sox to spend the final month of 2009 coming off the bench -- but it’s increasingly rare, especially now with most teams carrying extra pitchers and shorter benches. When the Dodgers signed 41-year-old Albert Pujols in May, they did so with the expectation he could still play some first base, and he has. That’s not really an option for Cruz, and while we can’t totally rule out the Giants or Brewers trying to get creative, this seems extremely unlikely.
14-11: The other AL sellers
Let’s go out on a limb and say that these four sub-.500 clubs in the American League -- the Rangers, Orioles, Tigers and Royals -- aren’t going to be terribly interested in adding a late-season rental.
10-6: The AL teams set at DH
A few other clubs who are either clearly contending or considering themselves as such are pretty well set at DH and therefore probably won’t want Cruz. This group includes the Angels (Shohei Ohtani), Red Sox (Martinez), Indians (Franmil Reyes), Astros (Yordan Alvarez) and Yankees (Giancarlo Stanton).
And then … there were five.
We, personally, don’t consider the Mariners strong contenders, in part because they’ve been outscored by 51 runs this year, which is about the same as what the Tigers and Rockies have done, and they have playoff odds of merely 4% via FanGraphs right now. Still, they’re 50-44 and within shouting distance, and after 20 years in the wilderness, perhaps being seen as a “buyer” might be enough of a positive in itself.
The Mariners have started 13 players at DH this year, combining for a decent-but-not-stellar .242/.324/.438 line; most recently, they’ve been relying on backup catcher Luis Torrens, who has hit .217/.287/.453 this year. Cruz, of course, had a successful four-year run in Seattle, hitting 163 homers with a 148 OPS+ from 2015-18, so there’s history and there’s need. We’ll call this one “possible but unlikely.”
4: White Sox
You certainly wouldn’t have thought of Chicago as a fit earlier this year, when Yermín Mercedes was off to a shocking start (.361/.406/.555 through May 15) and 1B/DH Andrew Vaughn was still trying to figure out left field. But Mercedes' start fell apart so badly that he was sent down to Triple-A earlier this month, and worries that Vaughn would be unplayable in left were unfounded, as he’s been competent enough.
Since May 15, Chicago has the third-weakest DH performance in the AL, and it’s long been clear this team needs another bat or two, even before the Adam Eaton experiment came to an end. But it’s not clear that Cruz is the right fit, and that’s not just because rookies Jake Burger and Gavin Sheets are both off to strong starts. It’s because the long-injured Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez are both finally on rehab assignments
While Robert would likely slot back into center field when he’s healthy, there’s a strong case to make that Jiménez shouldn’t go back to left field now or ever again. That’s partially because from 2019-20, he was one of baseball’s weakest defensive outfielders; it’s mostly because he’s repeatedly injured himself playing the field over his short career. The White Sox have their sights set on a title in 2021, and a hitter like Cruz would certainly be a boost, but their DH spot might already be spoken for.
3: Blue Jays
The Jays have something like the second-best offense in baseball, and that’s with relatively limited contributions from George Springer, who has only recently returned to full-time duty after missing most of the first half. They’d hoped Rowdy Tellez would firmly take over the DH role; that didn’t happen, and he was traded to Milwaukee. Instead, they’ve recently been using it as a rotating spot for whichever outfielder of Springer, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernández isn’t playing the field, but it’s been only mildly successful, as the Toronto DH spot has been middling this year.
Cruz would take a very good offense and make it a spectacular one, and there have already been rumors connecting the two sides. If there’s an issue here, it’s one of priorities, in that the Blue Jays are absolutely desperately in need of pitching help. Perhaps that turns into some kind of larger deal with Minnesota, one that sends pitching to the Jays as well.
Tampa Bay entered play on Tuesday just 1 1/2 games out in the AL East behind the Red Sox, so what do they need? “Pitching,” obviously, because everyone does, though the Rays seem to have an endless stream of arms internally, and if the Braves fall further out in the NL East, a reunion with Charlie Morton might make a lot of sense. Otherwise, though? They could use a powerful bat, because the Rays are 18th in slugging percentage as a team, and third worst in the AL in terms of slugging from DH.
Now that might be a little misleading in a playoff round, because Austin Meadows has been solid while slotted at DH (115 wRC+), while every other Tampa Bay DH has combined for a line of .200/.298/.316 (.614 OPS); with Cruz at DH, you’d have to play Meadows in left field more often, where he’s a below-average fielder. Still, it’s not like the Rays don’t know how to mix and match their pieces, and Cruz would offer a power bat they don’t really have outside of Mike Zunino, who has a much more all-or-nothing profile anyway.
This is it. This is the fit. This is the contender with the biggest need; this is the team that’s got a track record of trading for stars with expiring contracts; this would be the full-circle completion of a pro career that began in the Oakland organization way back in 2000. (Though Cruz originally signed with the Mets in 1998, he was traded to Oakland before playing domestically, and he spent parts of four seasons as an A’s Minor Leaguer before being dealt to Milwaukee in the winter of 2004-05.)
Oakland entered play on Tuesday controlling the second AL Wild Card spot, two games behind the Rays in the battle to host that game, but also only 3 1/2 games behind the Astros in the AL West. The A's biggest lineup issue is probably shortstop, where Elvis Andrus hasn’t offered much, but they have another hole at DH, where the team’s .226/.298/.403 line is superior only to that of Texas and Detroit. That’s primarily due to Mitch Moreland, who just hasn’t done that much this year -- .238/.295/.407 -- and, as a lefty first baseman, doesn’t exactly have anywhere to go on a roster with Matt Olson.
We suppose, perhaps, there's a small chance Cruz stays with the Twins, that the offers they get aren't worth it, that two more months of his universally beloved clubhouse presence are better used than a lottery ticket prospect. But that's rarely how these things go. Come July 31, Cruz will almost certainly be elsewhere. It'll almost certainly be one of these teams.