Twins' Top 5 designated hitters: Park's take

May 18th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only ... if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Do-Hyoung Park's ranking of the top 5 designated hitters in Twins history, since the franchise relocated to Minnesota in 1961. Next week: Right-handed starters.

Twins' Top 5: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF

1) , 2019-present
Key fact: Only designated hitter in Twins history to hit more than 30 homers in a season (hit 41 in 2019)

Cruz was 38 years old when he signed with the Twins before the 2019 season, and though his batting averages, slugging percentages and home run totals had all been in a slight decline since 2015, the aging slugger remained supremely confident that he still had plenty more in the tank. In fact, as Twins communications director Dustin Morse remembered, Cruz would always speak matter-of-factly about when -- not if -- he would hit his 400th career home run at some point in '19. He entered the season with 360 roundtrippers to his name. You do the math.

He almost didn't get there thanks to a ruptured tendon in his left wrist, but even that sinew somehow proved unnecessary for Cruz to continue launching bombs through the end of the season. He did, of course, hit that 400th career homer -- and 40th of the season -- on Sept. 22, and finished the campaign with a team-leading 41 blasts in only 120 games. His .311 average, .639 slugging percentage and 1.031 OPS all ranked among the best in baseball, and his 4.3 fWAR marked the best season by a primary designated hitter in club history. And that doesn't even consider his well-established leadership in the young Minnesota clubhouse.

"I hope the Twins can give him a couple more years [on his] contract, and he can retire here," Miguel Sanó said. "I love everything that he taught me this year. Not just me. He teaches [Jonathan Schoop], a lot of players here, too. I want to say thank you, God, for letting me play with Nelson Cruz."

Is one elite season enough to put Cruz at the top of this list? Considering the quality of that season and the Twins' relative dearth of production at designated hitter throughout the years, absolutely.

2) , 1996-98
Key fact: Most recent Twins player to lead the American League in hits, with 225 during the 1996 season

That lack of clout at designated hitter for much of the club's history allows for this list to serve as a career achievement award of sorts, too, which is why we dive into a pair of Hall of Fame hitters for the next two spots. Though most of Molitor's prime and memorable moments were experienced in Milwaukee and Toronto, the graduate of Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn., got the chance to return home for the final three seasons of his 21-year Hall of Fame career and treated his hometown fans to an excellent 1996 season, followed by two more solid campaigns before he finally hung up the cleats.

How good of a homecoming was it? Molitor's .341 batting average in '96 is tied for eighth among single seasons in Twins history and was good for an AL-leading 225 hits. He earned his fourth Silver Slugger Award and was recognized as the league's most outstanding designated hitter with the award that has since been renamed for Edgar Martínez. And on Sept. 16, 1996, Molitor stepped into the Kauffman Stadium batter's box in the fifth inning and dumped a fly ball into right-center field, never slowing his sprint until he arrived headfirst at third base with his 3,000th career hit.

The 21st member of the 3,000-hit club, "Molly" was the first player to reach the milestone with a triple (Ichiro Suzuki has since done the same) and did so three years to the day after fellow Minnesotan and Hall of Famer Dave Winfield also notched No. 3,000 with the Twins.

"St. Paul, you've got two members in the 3,000 hit club: Dave Winfield, and now Paul Molitor," roared play-by-play broadcaster Dick Bremer.

3) , 2010-11
Key fact: Hit his 600th career home run while a member of the Twins

"Deep to right! And there it goes!"

If you were at home the night of Aug. 17, 2010, you probably haven't forgotten Bremer's call of the first walk-off homer in Target Field history. If you were at Target Field, well, you probably couldn't hear anything over the frenzied roar of the crowd after Thome mashed a 10th-inning pitch from Matt Thornton into the right-field plaza and disappeared into a mob of his teammates at home plate after sinking the hated White Sox with one mighty swing of his bat.

What Thome lacked in longevity with the Twins (he was only around for a season and a half), he made up for with a flair for the dramatic. First, he passed franchise legend Harmon Killebrew on the all-time home run list. A month later, he dropped that hammer on the White Sox. One year after that, he crushed two homers at Comerica Park for Nos. 599 and 600 of his Major League career. All the while, he peppered balls to parts of Target Field -- the "CATCH" deck above the batter's eye in straightaway center, the top of the right-field flagpole -- that have rarely, if ever, been touched since.

After more than a decade of terrorizing Minnesota as a member of the Indians and White Sox, Thome only clubbed 37 of his 612 career homers in a Twins uniform before he was traded back to Cleveland. He won the hearts of fans across Twins Territory all the same.

4) , 2004, '06-11, '14
Key facts: One of 10 Twins to hit for the cycle; tied for fourth in club history with seven grand slams

While we're on the subject of memorable homers, Kubel's grand slam to complete the cycle on April 17, 2009, has to be up there with the best of them. If not that one, then the walk-off grand slam he hit against the Red Sox in 2006. And if not that one, either, then maybe the grand slam he hit off Mariano Rivera at Yankee Stadium in 2010. The point here is that the dude hit a lot of memorable grand slams.

Kubel's long tenure on those beloved late Metrodome-era teams and some of those big swings made him an easy fan favorite throughout an eight-year career with the Twins. He was far from the best hitter on those clubs and provided next to no defensive value as a corner outfielder, but there he always was, in the heart of the order, cranking double-digit homers every year like clockwork. His best season undoubtedly came in 2009, when he hit .300/.369/.539 with 28 homers and 35 doubles, but he otherwise strung together a solid career as part of the '04, '06, '09 and '10 AL Central-winning squads.

5) , 1991-92
Key fact: Hit two homers in 1991 World Series against the Braves

The acquisition of Davis before the '91 season proved to be a savvy move with a big payoff for the Twins. The switch-hitting designated hitter brought some needed balance to a lineup loaded with right-handed hitters like Chuck Knoblauch, Greg Gagne, Dan Gladden, Kirby Puckett and Shane Mack, and Davis ended up leading that lineup with 29 homers during the regular season as the Twins soared to a 95-67 record and a first-place finish in the AL West. He made a fairly significant impact that postseason, too, as he cracked a two-run blast in Game 2 of the World Series that helped the Twins to a one-run win, and unloaded a pinch-hit, game-tying blast in the eighth inning of Game 3 that sent the game to extra innings at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Davis hit 41 homers over two seasons with the Twins before he moved on to the Angels, Royals and Yankees to complete a very productive 19-year MLB career.

Honorable mentions
If he hadn't already appeared on the right-field list, Tony Oliva would definitely be among the most successful hitters to spend time as the Twins' designated hitter. That was a sad chapter of Oliva's story, though, as he was limited to hitting only for his final four seasons due to the knee injuries that kept him in debilitating pain and prematurely ended his playing career. ... There's an alternate universe out there somewhere in which the Twins don't release David Ortiz after six seasons and he attains full Big Papi-dom in Minneapolis instead of in Boston. All the same, he hit 58 homers during his Twins years. ... Randy Bush had more than a decade's worth of good-but-not-great seasons as he hopped around between designated hitter, first base and the outfield, reaching double digits in homers six times in a 12-year career -- all with the Twins.