Is it Time to Move on From Nelson Cruz?
Image courtesy of © Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY SportsNelson Cruz has operated as the designated hitter for the Minnesota Twins each of the past two seasons. In 2020 he was playing in his age-39 campaign and turned 40 years old in the midst of it. Looking for a two-year deal on the open market as a free agent, the exceptionally well cared for body will be 42 years old by the time said deal expires. Rocco Baldelli will have a huge hole in his lineup without the Dominican napper, but should the front office look to fill that with someone else?
You can’t make a case against Cruz without first looking at what he’s provided. His .992 OPS in 2020 was the second-best mark of his career, topped only by the 1.031 total in 2019. He blasted 16 dingers in just 53 games and any concerns about a wrist tendon seem to be all but gone. With the designated hitter expected to remain universal, he’ll have no games in which Minnesota is forced to sit him from the lineup, and he remains dialed into his body and health more than any other athlete can claim.
So, why wouldn’t the Twins look to bring him back?
I don’t think there’s a case to be made from a financial sense. After signing Josh Donaldson to a franchise record deal last offseason, and being in the middle of a competitive window, payroll should continue to rise in the years ahead. Even if a Cruz contract goes belly up, there’s hardly an argument to make that the Twins couldn’t simply absorb that hit. Spending for the sake of doing so never makes sense, and it’s why payroll hasn’t been the issue in recent memory. Spending when you’re a contender is such a logical ask, the Twins doing anything but for at least the next couple of years would be worthy of handwringing.
The only assessment to make when it comes to Nelson Cruz is on the basis of production, and where Father Time ranks in the list of detractors. At some point age is always undefeated, and while David Ortiz experienced a similar final season outburst, there’s hardly a guarantee the production would’ve continued forward. With Cruz, it’s fair to wonder when that time may be coming, and just how steep the decline will be.
2020 is a difficult year to assess from a statistical landscape given the small sample even considering its entirety. However, it’s still worth wondering if anything can be gleaned from short snippets of the season. Cruz raced out to a really strong start and was pacing the league in homers for a time. As the Postseason push came to a head though, he slowed some. Over his final 20 games Cruz slashed just .265/.383/.426 with three home runs. He didn’t homer in his final 10 games including the playoffs, and that dry spell tied a season long dinger absence. An .809 OPS as a low point in a 162-game stretch would be hardly anything to scoff at, so the hope would be a cold streak rather than a decline.
What is a bit more troubling is the swing profile that Cruz owned in the season that was. A year ago, Nelson posted an MLB leading 12.5 barrels per plate appearance and had the third highest average exit velocity in the game. His hard-hit rate was 51.5% trailing only Aaron Judge and teammate Miguel Sano. In 2020 Cruz’s barrel rate dropped over three percentage points putting him 27th in baseball. His average exit velo tumbled to 34th in the sport, and his hard-hit rate came in at just 37th (more than a 4% decrease).
None of the steps backwards represent an untenable path forwards. In and of themselves, they’re respectable numbers that you’d take from anyone in your lineup. What is bothersome is that the slide is relatively steep, and all of them speak to quickness of the lumber through the zone. What Minnesota needs to deduce is whether that’s reflective of normalization after a career year, or a veteran starting to see some signs of age.
We don’t often see players fall off in a comparable state. While there’s ranges that production wanes, how quickly and how drastically it happens remains individualized. I’d prefer that Minnesota did bring Cruz back, I think the level of familiarity and comfort makes it a good fit. The lineup probably needs more protection around him though, especially given the injury histories of some other key contributors. At some point there will need to be a transition from the Boomstick carrying the load to him being a cog in the wheel. Two years, hopefully with an option on the back half, would be the best-case scenario.
Nelson Cruz has staved off Father Time for quite a while. He was a late bloomer that has less tread on his tires as well. 500 homers are probably unlikely, but if he sniffs anywhere near that in the next two seasons, whoever he plays for will have gotten more than their money’s worth.
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