Nelson Cruz has been the Twins' best hitter this season, defying Father Time once again as the leading slugger on the best power-hitting team in history. However, the 39-year-old could be a free agent after the postseason if the team decides not to pick up his option. Cruz made it clear recently that he wants to return to Minnesota. He believes the Twins will be contenders for years to come.
“Definitely, I want to be back,” Cruz said. “I don't have that call, but hopefully, they can pick up the option. The future looks really bright for us, so I want to be part of winning teams for many years.”
Talk to members of the Twins and it's clear that the feelings are mutual, and for good reason. Cruz had a monster season at the plate, arguably his best ever. He put up a slash line of .311/.392/.639, with that slugging percentage representing a career high. He also led the Twins with 41 homers, helping them set a Major League record with 307. No wonder Cruz is a candidate for the Hank Aaron Award, which goes to the best hitter in each league. And given that his team option will cost Minnesota a relatively reasonable $12 million, it seems unlikely he’ll be playing anywhere else in 2020, regardless of whether or not the Twins can come back and defeat the Yankees in the American League Division Series, which they currently trail two games to none.
The numbers Cruz put up, however, don’t tell the whole story. Cruz is like a father figure to a lot of the players. He helped change the culture in the locker room in one season. This was a team that finished second in the AL Central last year but had a record under .500.
Cruz learned how to be a mentor by watching former teammate Michael Young go about his business. Young and Cruz were together from 2006 to '12 when both were with the Rangers. Cruz remembered that Young never changed his personality -- win or lose. It appears that Cruz is the same way, according to Twins manager Rocco Baldelli.
“He leads in a lot of different ways,” Baldelli said about Cruz. “He leads by example. When he walks in the clubhouse every day, he's got a big smile on his face. Guys are drawn to him. Like I said, he brings it on the field, but he brings it everywhere else, too. He's a wonderful human being. Guys want to be like him. I believe that.”
To prove Baldelli’s point: Cruz’s approach at the plate helped Max Kepler be more aggressive in ’19. As a result, Kepler had his best year to date, hitting a career-high 36 home runs. Kepler acknowledged that he was passive at the plate prior to this year because he was following in the shoes of Joe Mauer.
“I was taking a lot of first pitches, and Nellie goes up there and he is attacking right away,” Kepler said. “It helped me improve my power game. It’s good to have that person around.”
Then there’s third baseman Miguel Sanó. He missed the first six weeks of the season with a heel injury, but once he returned, he bounced back from a dreadful '18 season (.679 OPS) to recapture the form that made him an All-Star in '17, posting career highs in home runs (34) and OPS (.923). Sanó gives Cruz a lot of the credit for that turnaround.
“To me, he helped me a lot with my routine,” Sanó said. “[He is a] great captain, good leader. He's one of the most special people I've seen in my life. He tries to help the young players and the old players, and everything he does is good for the people.”
The only way this season could get better for Cruz is if he finally gets a championship ring.
“I think the first few years, I went to the World Series [in '10 and '11 with Texas]. I thought it was easy,” Cruz said. “I had to wait five years since the last time I went to the postseason. So definitely, I appreciate it more, and I understand how difficult it is to be in this situation.”