Pros and Crons: Weighing the Merits of Minnesota's Latest Addition
Image courtesy of Douglas DeFelice, USA TodayCron was available on waivers after the Tampa Bay Rays surprisingly designated him for assignment last week. They were clearing room to load up their 40-man roster with younger talent, and shaving off some 2019 payroll as well. Cron is expected to earn around $5 million in arbitration next year, and is under team control in 2020 as well.
Let's start with the positives: He's coming off a breakout age-28 season in which he slashed .253/.323/.493 with 30 home runs and 74 RBIs. His 2.1 WAR would've ranked fourth among Twins position players.
Although Cron took his game to a new level in 2018, it's not like it came out of nowhere. He was once an elite college slugger, putting up a 1.300 OPS in both his sophomore and junior years at Utah before the Angels selected him 17th overall in 2011. He was the top first baseman selected.
He has an .836 career OPS in the minors and has also been a consistently solid hitter in the big leagues. Although his 108 OPS+ heading into 2018 was unspectacular for someone with minimal defensive value, he notably hasn't tanked at any point; in parts of five MLB seasons Cron has never finished with an OPS below .739.
Of course, the fact that he's a formerly fringey player coming off a career-best slugging performance with the Rays means Cron is bound to draw unfavorable associations with Logan Morrison, who fizzled in Minnesota after joining up under similar circumstances last year.
In a way, such comparisons are clearly misguided. These are two completely different players, and not all – or even most – who break out in their late 20s experience immediate and drastic regression.
With that said, there are some substantive parallels between the two that make this a questionable move, from my view.
1: Cron is redundant on the Twins roster.
When they signed Morrison in February, he seemed like a bit of an odd fit – a lefty-swinging first baseman on a team that already had one in Joe Mauer. Of course, finding Morrison ABs wasn't really gonna be an issue if he hit like had the year before, and that's also true enough for Cron, who I find to be an even odder fit.
Cron is a righty-swinging 1B/DH added to a roster that already has exactly that in Tyler Austin. Granted, Austin's weaknesses are far more glaring – namely his .290 career OBP, 37% strikeout rate as a big-leaguer, and terrible numbers against righties – but he's also two years younger and about 10% the expected cost.
It's kinda hard to see Minnesota carrying both Cron and Austin next year, given their lack of complementary traits. Austin will be out of options in spring training. I'm not saying the Twins should be fully committed to a guy with his flaws, but Cron is an odd choice to push or replace him. Seems like either a more significant upgrade to place in front of Austin, or a lefty swinger to optimize for Austin's platoon splits, would make a lot more sense.
In fairness, the Twins aren't committed to Cron – they could cut him before the end of spring training at a negligible cost – but I suspect they wouldn't make this claim if they didn't (at least presently) intend to keep him.
2: Cron's massive power outburst looks like an outlier against his career.
By hitting 38 home runs for the Rays in 2017, Morrison obliterated his previous career high (23). The same is true for Cron's 30 in 2018, which nearly doubled his prior peak (16). In each case, the lift in long balls was driven by a suddenly elite barrel percentage – Morrison's 12.8% in 2017 was among the league's top 5% of hitters and Cron's 12.2% this year was in the top 8%. Their breakouts also coincided with new career highs in strikeout rate, with each ranking among the highest 10% of hitters for the first time.
So, there are similarities that go beyond "dudes from Tampa who hit a bunch of home runs." But again, none of their shared traits guarantee regression by any means, and who knows how much Morrison's drop-off was influenced by a hip injury that eventually required surgery.
This leaves us with little reason to view Cron's emergence with major skepticism. Except for this...
3: Despite coming off a career year, in his prime, Cron drew minimal interest around the league.
Ranking seventh in the majors in home runs at age 29, right before hitting the open market, seemingly should've teed up Morrison as a red-hot commodity. Yet, the Rays made no real effort to bring him back, and in fact Morrison waited until the end of February before settling for a one-year, $6.5 million with the Twins.
Meanwhile, Cron's availability hasn't been a secret; Rays beat writer Marc Topkin suggested at the beginning of November that a Cron trade "seems likely," and added that Tampa was seeking "more of a feared overall hitter."
When they couldn't trade him before last week's roster deadline, the Rays instead designated Cron for assignment. And when they still couldn't find a taker with reduced leverage in DFA limbo, they let him hit waivers, where Cron was passed up by a number of teams before Minnesota took him.
That is just awfully conspicious for a guy with Cron's combination of age, upward trajectory, team control, and reasonable salary.
My read is that teams largely aren't sold on his evolution as a hitter. And up until 2018 Cron just wasn't a very valuable asset, totalling 2.0 WAR in more than 400 games. His solid OPS figures have always been heavily SLG-driven (arguably less valuable than OBP, especially on a team like the Twins) and his walk rates have always been subpar.
In general, modern front offices are trending away from these sorts of inflexible, slow-moving, free-swinging power hitters. And the Twins are now at the forefront of this movement, which makes the claim a puzzling one. This isn't the kind of FO that gets starry-eyed over 30 home runs, nor is it one to downplay the restricting aspects of rostering a player like Cron – especially in addition to an Austin AND Miguel Sano.
So, I can only deduce they're really seeing something here. Perhaps the Twins were further compelled to action by new skipper Rocco Baldelli, who became very familiar with Cron as a Rays coach this year.
While tempting, given the dearth of other things to discuss, let us not over-inflate the magnitude of this move. We're not even in December. Cron might not be here in February, or January for that matter (this front office isn't averse to switching course when circumstances change – just ask Jaime Garcia or Anibal Sanchez).
But at the very least, it's an interesting move. Not interesting in the 'outside the box, forward-thinking, blatantly clever' kinda way I'm hoping to see from the Twins this offseason. But interesting anyway.
What say you? Are you more drawn to the pros or Crons... er, cons?
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