Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz has carved out a fantastic career with a few different teams since he debuted in the majors a decade-and-a-half ago. As you’ll see below, it has been quite an eventful journey for a player who has gone from relatively unheralded prospect to 401-home run hitter with six All-Star nods on his résumé…
- The Dominican Republic native entered the pros with the Mets, who signed him as an 18-year-old amateur free agent in 1998, but he never took a professional at-bat with the franchise.
- Cruz was not a league-wide elite prospect as he climbed his way to the majors. At his best, he ranked as Baseball America’s No. 8 Brewers prospect in 2006. BA rightly wrote then that Cruz, the Brewers’ minor league player of the year, possessed “well above average raw power,” though it also expressed concern over “holes in his swing.”
Early Career Trades
- In the first of multiple trades Cruz has been involved in as a pro, the Mets sent him to the Athletics in August 2000 for infielder Jorge Velandia. However, Velandia was a nonentity in the majors for the Mets. He amassed 92 plate appearances with New York across three years and stumbled to a .149/.281/.216 line.
- Like the Mets before them, the A’s gave up on a young Cruz, but only after he spent a few years in their system. In December 2004, Oakland dealt Cruz and right-hander Justin Lehr to the Brewers for infielder Keith Ginter. Unfortunately for the A’s, Ginter mustered a weak .161/.234/.263 line over 156 PA in 2005 – his lone season with the club. As mentioned earlier, Cruz was a productive Brewers minor leaguer, though he didn’t get much of a chance in the majors as a member of Milwaukee. Cruz made eight appearances and totaled seven PA in 2005.
Headed To The Site Of His Breakout
- The Brewers traded Cruz and former slugger Carlos Lee to the Rangers for righty Francisco Cordero, lefty Julian Cordero and outfielders Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix in July 2006. Let’s first address the non-Cruz pieces in that swap: Lee was a short-term success as a member of the Rangers, with whom he batted .322/.369/.525 with nine home runs in 260 PA. The Rangers didn’t make the playoffs, though, and Lee bolted for the Astros’ six-year, $100M contract during the ensuing offseason. Francisco Cordero had a very nice run in Milwaukee, where he pitched to a 2.60 ERA with 11.6 K/9 and 60 saves in 90 innings from 2006-07. He left the Brewers for the Reds’ four-year, $46M offer, which was then a record for a reliever. Julian Cordero never got past Single-A ball. Mench put up an unimpressive .256/.288/.403 line with nine HRs in 441 PA as a Brewer from 2006-07, while Nix collected a meager 61 PA with the club in parts of three seasons.
- In hindsight, as effective as Lee and Francisco Cordero were after this trade, Cruz emerged as the most valuable piece for either team. It just took a few more years to finally happen. Cruz got off to a brutal start as a Ranger from 2006-07, when he combined to hit a dismal .231/.279/.384 with 15 HRs in 471 trips to the plate. Discouraged, the Rangers designated Cruz for assignment at the beginning of 2008, but they retained him after he cleared waivers. Cruz went on to mash 37 home runs in the minors that year, and he chipped in a tremendous .330/.421/.609 line and seven homers in 133 major league PA. That was truly the start of a fruitful run in Texas and in the majors as a whole. From 2009-13 as a Rangers regular, Cruz piled up 135 homers, batted .272/.331/.511 and won an ALCS MVP in 2011. To be clear, though, not everything went swimmingly for Cruz in the Lone Star State. The former outfielder’s defensive limitations helped lead to a catastrophic World Series loss to the Cardinals in 2011. Two years later, Cruz was hit with a 50-game suspension stemming from the Biogenesis scandal. However, Cruz contended he only took the substance to combat helicobacter pylori, a bacterial infection that caused a 40-pound weight loss.
Trips To Free Agency
- The PED ban came at an especially inopportune time for Cruz, then a soon-to-be free agent; after rejecting the Rangers’ $14.1M qualifying offer, he had to settle for a one-year, $8M guarantee with the Orioles in February 2014. The move wound up as a positive for both sides, though, as Cruz rebuilt his stock as a member of a playoff team by slashing .271/.333/.525 and establishing a new career high with 40 homers.
- Cruz returned to the open market the next offseason, but he did far better that time. In what looked like a questionable move by the Mariners, they handed Cruz a four-year, $57M guarantee. As it turned out, Cruz more than lived up to his payday in Seattle, where he truly cemented himself as an all-world offensive player. He appeared in at least 144 games in each season from 2015-18 – a 1,967-PA stretch in which he racked up 163 homers, hit .284/.362/.546 and recorded an eye-popping 147 wRC+.
- After his superb Seattle stint, Cruz reached free agency yet again prior to the 2019 campaign. And once again, the team that signed him came away happy. Cruz inked a one-year, $14.3M guarantee with the Twins, though the pact also included a $12M club option for 2020. Unsurprisingly, the Twins picked up that option after Cruz helped the team set an all-time single-season HR record (307) en route to 101 wins and a division title. Despite only appearing in 120 games, Cruz contributed 41 of those dingers. Pound for pound, it may have been his greatest season at the plate thus far – he registered a .311/.392/.639 line with a personal-high 163 wRC+.
It’s not exactly common to see a player thrive under three consecutive free-agent contracts, but Cruz has managed to accomplish the feat. He’ll have an opportunity to go 4-for-4 if he becomes a free agent again next winter. Although Cruz will turn 40 on July 1, his bat’s aging like fine wine, so it would seem unwise to doubt him.