Nelson Cruz Landing Spots, Ranked
Image courtesy of Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY SportsIf the designated hitter is removed from the National League for next year, Cruz's potential market is sliced in half from 30 teams to the 15. But the reality for Cruz is even grimmer than that; only a select few teams might feasibly target him based on their needs and circumstances.
As you size up the landscape of AL teams, their budgets, motivations, and current situations at DH, it becomes evident that Cruz will have a very limited field of suitors this winter. This is not unlike two offseasons ago, when the same dynamic led to him taking a lower-than-expected deal with the Twins. But this time around, the terrain may be even less favorable for Cruz.
Below, I've grouped all 15 teams into three tiers, based on the level of interest they're likely to have in pursuing Cruz as a free agent target:
- YAY NELLY: These teams are bona fide contenders with a fairly evident need at DH, and a reasonable likelihood of spending the money necessary to sign Cruz.
- MAYBE NELLY: These teams are either borderline contenders, or light spenders, or good clubs without an obvious fit for a pure DH.
- NAY NELLY: These teams either have zero room for a DH-only player, or are rebuilding with no reason to spend money on a 40-year-old DH (and no appeal to Cruz at this point anyway).
There's certainly room for debate, but here's how I see the suitors shaking out:
White Sox: If Cruz signs somewhere other than Minnesota this offseason, I see Chicago as the single most likely destination. They are in the same place as the Twins were two years ago when they signed Nelly – a talented young team on the cusp, in need of veteran leadership and proven production. The Sox declined a $12 million option on Edwin Encarnacion, who was a disappointment at DH in 2020, but I bet they'd happily give that same amount (or a bit more) to Cruz next year.
Cleveland: I'm tempted to knock them down into the "Maybe" category, because we have every indication that Cleveland is going to scale back spending even more than usual this winter. The thing is, Cruz would be such a massive difference-maker for this team. They are well positioned to push, with an elite pitching staff led by the reigning Cy Young winner. Shane Bieber finished fourth in MVP voting this year, while Cruz finished sixth. Pairing those two would keep Cleveland squarely in the championship conversation, even if they trade Francisco Lindor and spend minimally elsewhere.
Twins: They don't really *need* Cruz, which is a point that Matthew Taylor made well the other day. Minnesota could turn to a rotation of internal options and spend the funds elsewhere. But we'd be kidding ourselves to think they won't seriously pursue a reunion with Cruz. He's been named their Most Valuable Player in two straight years, bringing resounding value both on the field and off it.
Angels: Cruz and Mike Trout hitting in the same lineup – could you imagine it?! They rank No. 1 and 2 among all MLB hitters in OPS and wOBA over the past two seasons. And Los Angeles is very much in the business of winning now, as the clock continues to tick on Trout's incomplete legacy. The complication of course is Shohei Ohtani. If the Angels intend to continue using him as a two-way player, they simply can't sign a full-time designated hitter. Doesn't work. If they ditch that plan (against Ohtani's wishes), and move him to the outfield, Cruz suddenly becomes very viable, and LA moves up to the "Yay Nelly" category. It all hinges on Ohtani.
Blue Jays: I like the idea of Cruz joining the Jays in that he'd make for a poetic bookend to 21-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – generational sluggers of Dominican descent, joining forces to help Toronto dethrone New York and take over the East. Cruz competed against Vlad Sr. for many years, and would bring much more than added punch to a talented young Jays lineup. However, even at his young age, the junior Vlad is already almost relegated to DH, and Toronto already has a second defensively limited slugger in Rowdy Tellez. I don't quite see how they make room for Cruz.
Rays: Are they a great fit? Absolutely. This team reached the World Series before falling just short, and could desperately use the experience, leadership, and production Cruz would provide. On paper it's a match made in heaven. But here, paper is the problem – as in cash money. Tampa unloads payroll and spends frugally under the best of circumstances. They're also not known for buying high. In this depressed economic setting, with Cruz looking to cash in, I just can't see the Rays ponying up. But he is a great fit here, so they're in the conversation.
Rangers: There are some reasons to see Texas as a logical landing spot for Cruz. The Rangers are coming off a really disappointing year and in need of a shakeup. Shin-Soo Choo, who's been a fixture at DH over the past few seasons, is now a free agent. Cruz would be a potentially transformative upgrade to an offense that ranked last in the American League in OPS in 2020. Plus, there's the familiarity – Cruz spent eight seasons playing in Texas and blossomed as a star there. Problem is: Texas seems a few years from contention at least. They finished last in 2020, haven't finished better than third since 2016, and just traded Lance Lynn to the White Sox.
Astros: Houston was among the finalists (maybe runner-up) for Cruz when the Twins signed him two years ago. They will once again be targeting a title in 2021, and are facing the losses of a couple key offensive pieces in free agents George Springer and Michael Brantley. You could see how the addition of a star property like Cruz would be appealing. But the Astros have already got Yordan Alvarez. The 2019 Rookie of the Year was already basically a full-time DH before he had surgery on both knees this summer. I guess they could do something like put Alvarez at first base or left field to make room for Cruz, but it doesn't seem likely.
Athletics: Khris Davis is one of the two or three players who is even in the conversation with Cruz as best designated hitter in baseball. He plays for the A's, and is under contract for $16.75 million in 2021.
Red Sox: The Red Sox are committed to J.D. Martinez for $19.35 million in 2021, and he's not really an option anywhere other than DH. Martinez is not far removed from producing at a Cruz-like level (which is why Boston gave him his mega-deal) and he's seven years younger.
Yankees: Theoretically, I'm sure New York would love to add Cruz to their already power-packed lineup. It'd fit their M.O. But the details are tricky. The Yankees already have Aaron Judge in right, Giancarlo Stanton at DH, and breakout slugger Luke Voit at first base. How would Cruz possibly work into this equation?
Orioles: Cruz might have one year left in the tank. He isn't spending it with a blatant rebuilder, with no realistic hopes of contending.
Mariners: See above.
Tigers: See above, again.
Royals: Also basically the same. Kansas City is closer to contention than any of the three above, but they already have Jorge Soler at DH and just signed Carlos Santana.
Okay, so what have we learned here? Basically, it's hard to see more than handful of teams making any kind of push for Cruz. Barring unseen developments, his market might amount to two or three teams. Which is be very bad news for him but good news for the Twins.
He's a luxury, but perhaps one they can afford.
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