Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Designated Hitter
Image courtesy of David Berding-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starter: Nelson Cruz
Likely Backup: Miguel Sano
Depth: Jorge Polanco, Willians Astudillo
Prospects: Alex Kirilloff, Brent Rooker
It's almost impossible to overstate how good Cruz was at hitting last year. Forty-one homers and 108 RBIs would be outstanding production in a full campaign, but he amassed those numbers while limited to just 120 games.
Among qualified MLB hitters, Cruz ranked fourth in OPS, behind only Christian Yelich, Mike Trout and Cody Bellinger – two MVPs and a runner-up. His wOBA he was behind Trout, Yelich and Alex Bregman. Same for wRC+. By almost any of today's most trusted offensive measures, Cruz was absolutely elite, placing alongside the very best players in the game.
He hit for average (.311, T-4th in the AL) and power (second to Trout in SLG at .639). He got on base at nearly a .400 clip. He was good in the first half (.921 OPS) and absolutely unconscious in the second half (1.147 OPS). He elevated his performance in clutch situations of all types. His Statcast measurements, much like Josh Donaldson's, were nuts.
There is really not one single valid thing to nitpick about Cruz's 2019 performance, other than the quantity, which suffered from his bouts with a wrist injury and his inability to play anywhere in the field during interleague play.
The Twins are wise to anticipate a similarly partial workload in whatever form of season lies ahead, and in fact they might be wise to plan for it, giving the veteran slugger – who turns 40 in July – plenty of rest and downtime. Their abundance of depth makes it easy to rotate guys like Josh Donaldson, Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano through the DH spot to keep legs fresh.
Let Cruz get his naps in plentifully during the summer, so that he'll be a sleeping beast ready to awaken in October. (And November? December?)
The parallels between Cruz's first year with the Twins in 2019, and Jim Thome's first year with the Twins in 2010, are unmistakable. Both were legendary sluggers verging on 40 when they signed with Minnesota to provide seasoned power at the DH spot. Both surpassed all expectations on the way to stunningly great seasons, dotted with memorable moments and jaw-dropping dingers. In fact, their OPS figures were almost identical (1.039 versus 1.031).
But both also showed the initial signs of wavering durability, with Thome's finicky back limiting him to 108 games and Cruz's nagging wrist limiting him to 120. Neither was much worse for the wear, but Thome came nowhere near the same level during his encore in 2011, dropping to a far more human .243/.351/.476 in 71 games before getting dealt to Cleveland in late August. His back was a constant issue.
Not many ballplayers remain productive into their 40s. Once you get to this point, skills can diminish sharply and the body becomes far more prone to breaking down. These are just physiological realities.
Aaron Gleeman did some research for The Athletic, and found that Cruz faces long odds to repeat in his age-39 season. "At that age, declines appear suddenly and are often irreversible — a cliff no one saw coming until they’re plummeting down it." Some examples you might recognize: Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Edgar Martinez.
While this is technically supposed to qualify as Cruz's age-39 season, there's a strong likelihood that he'll have celebrated his 40th birthday on July 1st before another meaningful game is played. His ruptured wrist tendon is of course a volatile factor in his outlook. The slugger played through it with remarkable effectiveness last year, posting a 1.023 OPS in 33 games after suffering the injury, but it's tough to count on this sort of superhumanity lasting forever. Easy as it is to believe Cruz is some sort of demigod, he is to my knowledge a mortal man.
The good news is that even a fairly significant reduction in output would still make Cruz a valuable designated hitter. And if he reaches the cliff, there's no shortage of quality bats to step in. The Twins could shift Sano to DH and replace him with Marwin Gonzalez, or rotate regulars through the position with backups filling in defensively. They could call up Brent Rooker, whose prodigious bat looked ready in Rochester last summer. Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach are not far behind.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Cruz is a linchpin in the lineup, but Minnesota is a long way from being scarce on good hitters if he can't keep Father Time at bay.
In that respect, there is one other player comp I'd like to close with – one bearing some familiarity. Gleeman's analysis found that "only two players in baseball history have hit as well and played as often at 39 as they did at 38: Barry Bonds and David Ortiz."
David Ortiz. Now there's an interesting name. A highly gifted and sturdily built Dominican player who started his career with the Twins and went on to become one of the greatest designated hitters the game has ever seen. He hit 35 homers with an .873 OPS for the Red Sox at age 38, then improved to 37 and .913 at age 39.
The real pièce de résistance came at age 40, Ortiz's final season, when he went off for .315/.401/.620 with 48 homers and 127 RBIs as Boston won the AL East.
Cruz is a highly gifted and sturdily built Dominican player who's ending his career with the Twins, and has grabbed Ortiz's torch as the game's foremost DH. Wrist issues notwithstanding, he showed no signs of fading last year, and was absolutely cranking in exhibition action before spring training shut down. In 23 at-bats he hit .435 with three home runs.
We have every reason to believe Cruz will keep playing at a high level, and the Twins have reportedly even discussed extending him through age 41, so the end isn't necessarily imminent. But needless to say, his time is fleeting. And that's mostly fine, because the organization is deep on bat-first players capable of becoming assets in the DH spot, both now and in the future.
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Catcher
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: First Base
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Second Base
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Third Base
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Shortstop
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Left Field
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Center Field
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Right Field
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