Twins Win the Universal DH Battle
Image courtesy of © Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY SportsThis was supposed to be Nelson Cruz’s age-39 season, but before any games are played, he’ll be for. A man, over the hill, or any other way you’d like to dice it he is not. Maybe it’s a credit to his elite napping skills, or maybe it’s because he was a late-blooming prospect. Whatever “it” is though, Cruz has absolutely still got it.
Minnesota’s designated hitter played zero games in the field during 2019 and has played five or less in each season dating back to 2016. When he shows up to the ballpark there is one focus, to hit. Last season Cruz did plenty of that. He posted a career best 1.031 OPS while blasting 41 dingers. His .311 average was a high-water mark since 2010 and the .392 OBP was easily a career high.
Counting stats are certainly gaudy for the Dominican native, but it’s the inputs that truly jump off the board. Cruz was 1st in baseball when it comes to barrels per plate appearance at 12.5%. He was third in average exit velocity (93.7 mph) behind on Aaron Judge and teammate Miguel Sano. He also ranked third in hard hit rate, trailing the same duo, and his average dinger came in at a whopping 411 ft.
It wasn’t as though Cruz made any drastic changes in 2019 either. His swing profile remained virtually unchanged from career norms. No out of whack BABIP or walk rate were in play either. What the Twins have is a professional hitter with a single goal of destroying the baseball. Pretty nice asset for a position entitled “designated hitter.”
So, if the Twins have the best one in the league, and everyone else is chasing them, it’s certainly going to be suboptimal when Nelson hangs them up in a year or two right? Well, maybe not. Enter Miguel Sano and the rest of Minnesota’s pipeline.
Patrick Wozniak wrote a really great piece regarding the Twins draft strategy in recent years. Under Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the focus has appeared to be on projectable bats. The system now has boppers like Brent Rooker and Aaron Sabato, while a bit more versatile options such as Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, and Matt Wallner all exist.
The goal is never for a draftee or prospect to be psotionless. Value is derived from opportunity, and it’s largely why the Twins have strayed from locking Sano into a sole DH role at this point. However, if you look at it as a starter turned reliever, it’s hardly a bad fall back option. Knowing that one spot in the lineup, as has been the case in the American League for quite some time, is going to be taken solely by a bat allows the Twins flexibility.
Not often do players age as well as Nelson Cruz has. Former Twins first basemen David Ortiz is probably the most glaring example, and he retired while still producing at an elite level. Time remains undefeated and eventually Cruz will turn the page, but it’s more than evident he’s at the top now and Minnesota could be for the considerable future.
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