Twins acquire RHPs Ryan, Strotman for Cruz

All-Star slugger bids 'emotional' farewell to Minnesota, leaves lasting legacy

July 23rd, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- Everyone knew this day was coming. That didn't make it any easier -- not for the man himself, and not for a grateful organization to which he meant everything for nearly three years.

is no longer a member of the Minnesota Twins after he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday afternoon, meaning the Twins' clubhouse has lost its best hitter and its steadfast leader. And though Cruz will find the pennant chase he hoped to have in Minnesota this season, he still felt like he was leaving a family behind in the Twin Cities.

"It was shocking," Cruz said. "I don't think, even when you're expecting something like this, you can prepare for this. It hit me when they told me and it hit me when I went to the locker room to see my teammates. That's when it really hit me. It was emotional.

"It's hard to leave family behind, and in this case, move to a different park, go to a different organization. I feel like this was my family and we've been through a lot through the years. Definitely, it's heartbreaking."

From a baseball standpoint, there was no question that this was a needed move for a Twins club that won't be pushing for the playoffs, but had to find pitching help for the push it hopes to mount in 2022. Minnesota made off well in that regard, as it netted a pair of Triple-A starting pitchers from the Rays -- right-handers Joe Ryan (ranked No. 10 in the Tampa Bay organization) and Drew Strotman (No. 17) -- who are nearly Major League ready. The Twins also traded away right-hander Calvin Faucher, who had been with Double-A Wichita.

But from the personal standpoint -- for the young Latin-American players in the organization, for the clubhouse attendants, for the front office, for everyone Cruz touched following his signing ahead of the 2019 season -- it was still very tough.

"This is meant with no disrespect to anybody else, but he may be the best teammate I’ve ever seen in terms of the way he goes about his business, the way he puts his arm around people, the way he helps us become better in our front office jobs and coaching staff jobs," executive vice president and chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said. "This guy is beyond special."

And none of that is to mention the impact that Cruz had from the heart of Minnesota's lineup for two American League Central-winning clubs in 2019 and '20.

Cruz led the team in homers and OPS in each of his three seasons wearing a Twins uniform. In 258 games with Minnesota, he hit .304/.386/.598 with 76 homers and 45 doubles, never once showing his age -- even when he ruptured that tendon in his left wrist that might have put someone else's career in jeopardy. The only way you could tell he was 41, really, was through his penchant for naps before each game.

"When I saw Nelson sleeping, I said, 'It's like my dad sleeping right now. I can't do something bad because he's going to get angry,'" Luis Arraez said. "I love Nelson. I love him. He's like a big part of my family."

Family. That's a word that came up often -- from Cruz himself, and from those players who considered themselves lucky to share a clubhouse with him at Target Field.

Miguel Sanó frequently likened Cruz to being like his "dad" as the elder Dominican pushed him to his best career season in 2019 and continued to mentor him through his struggles in '21, going so far as to inviting Sanó to his garage at home for hitting sessions when needed. Sanó wore Cruz's pants in Thursday's series opener against the Angels to honor his mentor.

He'll try to wear those pants in a metaphorical sense, too, moving forward. Having watched Cruz's outsized impact off the field -- whether in encouraging pitchers after bad outings or teaching Sanó about the value of leadership or winning the 2020 Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award -- Sanó knows that someone will need to take on that mantle in this clubhouse.

"He told me, 'If, one day, we don't play together, in the clubhouse, you need to be the man," Sanó said. "Like I said earlier, he's my dude. He's my dad. He's my guy and everything. And I hope he comes back next year to the Twins' organization. I saw him cry, and I'm crying too when I saw him like that. He didn't want to leave."

Even at this late stage in his career, family is what Cruz found in Minneapolis, and that's what made it so tough for him to leave when the time came on Thursday.

"This is a first-class organization all the way from the top to the bottom," Cruz said. "From the coaching staff, the media, the trainers, the clubbies, front office staff, even the guys who work on the field, it's definitely a nice place to be around. Definitely makes you feel part of the family, makes you feel comfortable and makes you fight for the cause, the city."

And that's why Cruz is more than open to the idea of returning to Minneapolis once his rental period in Tampa Bay is over and he'll engage with the free agent process all over again. And there was that word again -- family.

"Definitely," Cruz said. "This is part of my family. I've got a lot of friends that I love like family. The city. Everything that I've been through the last three years, it really touched me. I embraced it the best way that I can. We'll see what happens next year."

That dedication and leadership would have been an asset to many teams at this deadline, and Falvey noted indeed that many teams had inquired regarding Cruz's services -- but the Rays were particularly aggressive, and the Twins were thrilled with the haul they got for two months of Cruz in Ryan and Strotman.

"We feel like, given what we were hoping to get at this Deadline, at least in that conversation, we feel like we may have even exceeded that," Falvey said. "These guys are two upper-level pitchers who pitched as well as anybody in the game in Triple-A."

Ryan, whose fastball plays particularly well, led the Minor Leagues in strikeout rate in 2019 and posted a 3.63 ERA with 75 strikeouts and 10 walks in 57 innings for Triple-A Durham in 12 appearances this season. He's off to Tokyo for the Olympic Games, representing the United States as part of the national baseball team.

Strotman is still on the rebound from Tommy John surgery in June 2018 and turned heads in the 2020 fall instructional league. Though he has struggled a bit with his command this season in Triple-A -- he has 62 strikeouts, 33 walks and a 3.39 ERA in 58 1/3 innings across 13 appearances -- Falvey noted that the Twins feel that Strotman's underlying stuff continues to push in a strong direction following the recovery from the procedure.

Considering that Minnesota needed pitching in a bad way for 2022 and both right-handers could impact the rotation by then, they could be starting the first chapter of their Twins legacies soon.

It'll be tough to top the outsized legacy that Cruz left behind.

"His legacy for the Twins will last well past when he’s done playing," Falvey said. "I don’t know when that’s going to be. Might be [age] 50 at this point, but it will last forever."