Rays acquire slugger Nelson Cruz from Twins

Slugger has clear goal: 'I want to be part of a championship team'

July 23rd, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- Locked in a tight race atop the American League East this summer and looking to make a return trip to the World Series in the fall, the Rays made a big move Thursday to add one of the Majors’ biggest bats to their lineup.

The Rays acquired designated hitter from the Twins in a deal that sent two of their top Minor League pitching prospects, right-handers Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman, to Minnesota. Tampa Bay hopes Cruz, the 41-year-old slugger and seven-time All-Star, will fortify the club’s lineup and make it a more formidable group down the stretch, especially against left-handed pitchers.

Rays get: DH Nelson Cruz, RHP Calvin Faucher

Twins get: RHP Joe Ryan (Rays' No. 10 prospect per MLB Pipeline) and RHP Drew Strotman (No. 17)

“As we were looking through possibilities to help this club, we determined that this was likely the path that would provide the most impact in a single roster spot. It thickens the group,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said on a conference call. “As good a bat as you're going to find, as good a bat as we've had here.”

Both pitchers headed to Minnesota were at Triple-A Durham, with Ryan ranked by MLB Pipeline as the No. 10 prospect in Tampa Bay's system and Strotman ranked 17th. Faucher, a 25-year-old righty reliever at Double-A Wichita, was not ranked among the Twins' top 30 prospects by MLB Pipeline.

Cruz will take Strotman’s spot on the 40-man roster, but the Rays will have to make a corresponding move -- likely sending down a pitcher -- to add the slugger to their active roster. Cruz said he expects to join the team in Cleveland on Friday, when the Rays play the Indians at Progressive Field.

The Rays made a strong push to sign Cruz after the 2018 season, when he wound up signing with the Twins. Cruz said he was “very close” to signing with the Rays then, and he was “really excited and happy” to finally land with Tampa Bay to continue his pursuit of a World Series ring after reaching the Fall Classic twice with Texas in 2010 and 2011.

“I’m 41, so definitely hunting for a World Series championship,” Cruz said on a conference call. “I want to be part of a championship team, and hopefully I can contribute to get that done for the Rays.”

Cruz turned 41 on July 1, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down offensively. He earned his seventh All-Star selection this year and carried a .294/.370/.537 slash line (151 OPS+) into Thursday, with 19 home runs and 50 RBIs. Cruz has 436 career home runs, ranking 46th on the all-time list, and has reached the 40-homer mark four times since 2014. And he’s been a force in the playoffs, with a 1.019 postseason OPS that ranks fourth in MLB history behind Albert Pujols, George Brett and Carlos Beltran.

Cruz figures to be a major upgrade for two reasons. One, the Rays entered Thursday hitting just .226/.303/.380 against left-handed pitchers this season; Cruz is 38-for-105 with six homers off lefties this year, and he’s a career .300/.387/.575 hitter against southpaws. Two, Cruz can make Tampa Bay's DH spot his own. He hasn’t played an inning in the field since 2018, but manager Kevin Cash can start him as the DH almost every day for a team that’s received just a .219/.305/.389 slash line from its designated hitters.

Acquiring Cruz will force the Rays to shuffle their lineup even more on a regular basis, barring further moves between now and the July 30 Trade Deadline, with Austin Meadows likely getting more work in the outfield. Neander said he’s confident that Tampa Bay’s “selfless” position player group will adapt well, given the club’s desire to win and understanding of the impact Cruz will have.

“The DH spot is not for everybody. The total of our numbers out of the DH spot haven't been what you'd like to have,” Neander said. “This is someone that has lived in that spot, has been able to succeed in that spot. It's not for everybody, but he's done it.”

Cruz’s ability in the batter’s box is why the Rays made the trade. But Neander said they “probably” wouldn’t have paid the price they did if not for the veteran’s reputation as a leader and mentor in the clubhouse. Tampa Bay is leaning on several young hitters this season, including 26-year-old Randy Arozarena and 20-year-old Wander Franco, and Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said Cruz “shows just how to be a pro, all the way through, both on and off the field.”

“I feel like it’s part of my job to help the young guys get some experience for how to prepare for games, how to take care of yourself even off the field,” Cruz said. “Through the years, I learned that was part of my job also, to be involved with the young guys.”

Cruz re-signed with Minnesota this past offseason on a one-year, $13 million deal, which will make him a free agent again next offseason. The Twins didn’t send any cash to the Rays in the deal, a source told MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, which means Tampa Bay will assume the roughly $5 million that Cruz is owed the rest of this season.

So Cruz is a rental, but potentially an impactful one if he keeps hitting the way he always has. And the Rays are willing to take some calculated risks to get back to the postseason and push even farther than they did last season, when they fell short against the Dodgers in Game 6 of the World Series. Tampa Bay entered Thursday trailing Boston by one game in the AL East while holding the top spot in the AL Wild Card race.

This trade sends a clear message from the Rays, who let veteran starter Charlie Morton depart as a free agent and traded starter Blake Snell for a haul of young talent last offseason: They want to get back to the World Series, and they’re willing to make the moves necessary to get there.

“We were in the World Series last year, and we made a few decisions over the winter that were really difficult decisions,” Neander said. “The way that they've played put us in a position to believe that an add like this could raise our expectations to at least where they were last year. That's why we did it. And to do it on July 22 affords us the time to continue working at other [trade] possibilities that may or may not be out there, but this was certainly a big one for us to jump on here.”