Only once in my lifetime have the Twins signed a more accomplished hitter as a free agent, and it worked out supremely well. Can Cruz follow in the footsteps of Jim Thome with a legendary late-career pitstop?Projected Starter: Nelson Cruz
Likely Backup: Willians Astudillo
Depth: Miguel Sano, Tyler Austin, Wilin Rosario
Prospects: Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Brent Rooker
Cruz projects as far-and-away the best hitter in the Minnesota lineup. His production last year alone – 37 home runs, 97 RBIs, .850 OPS – towers over any single season on the résumé of any other Twins hitter, and it was his "worst" of the last five.
Even conservative projections foresee monster output from the veteran slugger in 2019. He's 38, so there are naturally questions about how age might factor, but he hasn't shown too many signs of slowing down. His average exit velocity was fifth-highest in the majors last year, and while his batting average did drop off (the result of a career-low .264 BABIP), there were no major changes in whiff rate or push/pull ratio to indicate his swing was falling behind. Additionally, metrics say he's far better suited to his new home at Target Field than Safeco.
So, from all appearances, it is go time for one of baseball's most consistently excellent offensive players. The Twins signed him to a stunningly team-friendly pact, so they'll have the option to bring him back for $12 million in 2020.
Even if decline sets in rapidly for Cruz, or his sparkling run of durability (144+ games in each of the past five years) comes to an end, the Twins have no shortage of bats waiting in tow. Astudillo is just itching for regular ABs anywhere he can get 'em. If the Twins can find a way to keep Austin, he's a tailor-made slugging DH. Jake Cave, who figures to be a fourth outfielder, could form a semi-platoon as he slashed .287/.335/.509 against righties as a rookie. Marwin Gonzalez will theoretically not have an assigned defensive position after Sano comes back. And Sano himself has always seemed destined for DH duty at some point. Kirilloff and Larnach both loom in the minors.
The Twins seem to have landed themselves one of the most respected, feared and reliable hitters in the league, at an unbelievable bargain. Which prompts the question: why?
Cruz turns 39 in July. While there have been no conspicuous signs of breakdown, he's getting to that age where it can happen in a hurry. This surely played a part in his lukewarm market. So did his inability to play any defensive position, cutting out half of potential bidders.
But still, the man leads baseball in home runs over the past half-decade and he was a monster last year. He's been consistently dominant, and has a tremendous clubhouse rep. Not only were the Twins able to get him on their desired one-year guarantee, but they tacked on a team option to make it even more favorable.
It might just be a perfect confluence of circumstances, where the market was weird and every other AL team felt good enough about their DH situations to pass. But until we see Cruz get out there and pick up where he left off, we'll have to wonder why the lack of demand. Though the situations are wildly different, it's hard not to see some parallel with Logan Morrison a year ago.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Twins have come a long way since the days of grasping for straws at the designated hitter spot. They honestly would've looked pretty decent here without Cruz, but needless to say, injecting one of the league's most respected bats brings the team's DH strength to a whole new level.
The farm system is chock full of upcoming quality bats with positions TBD, so even if things don't work out with Cruz, there isn't much reason for concern.
***Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Catcher
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: First Base
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Second Base
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Third Base
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Shortstop
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Left Field
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Center Field
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Right Field
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