Christmas may be over, but the Twins got themselves a late gift. On Thursday morning, reports surfaced that Minnesota had signed free-agent designated hitter Nelson Cruz to a one-year deal worth $14 million in 2019 and with a $12 million option for ’20. It’s a modest commitment to one of the game’s more reliable bats for a lineup in desperate need of power.
A big part of Minnesota’s slip from wild-card team in 2017 to 84 losses last season was the offense falling on its face. The Twins went from being the seventh-highest scoring team in the bigs in 2017 at 5.03 runs per game to 13th at 4.56, with drops in home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+, and just about every other important stat. The blame for that goes in a lot of directions. Brian Dozier went from All-Star (a 126 OPS+ in 2017) to just another guy (a 92 OPS+ before being traded in August). Joe Mauer’s final season was a dud at a 99 OPS+ and only six home runs. Byron Buxton gave back his 2017 gains and then some, missing most of the season with injury and struggling mightily (.156/.183/.200) when on the field.
But perhaps nothing hurt the Twins more than the disappearance of Miguel Sano. The burly third baseman was the engine of Minnesota’s offense in 2017, hitting .264/.352/.507 with 28 homers and a 126 OPS+. But a late-season leg injury turned into ankle surgery that hampered his offseason, and he never got going in ’18, slashing a meager .199/.281/.398 in 71 games. A hamstring injury cost Sano most of May, but things were so bad even when he was healthy that, in mid-June, the Twins demoted him all the way down to A ball. Sano did work his way back to the majors in late July but didn’t show much, hitting .195 with 49 strikeouts in 34 games down the stretch.
With Sano and Buxton open question marks in terms of 2019 effectiveness, adding the steady consistency of Cruz is a smart move on Minnesota’s part. At 38, the ex-Mariner is long in the tooth, but his bat hasn’t slowed down one bit. Last season in Seattle, he clubbed 37 homers—his fifth straight year with 37 or more—slugged .509, and posted a 135 OPS+. Since 2014, his 145 OPS+ ranks sixth among all hitters with 3,000 or more plate appearances—better than, among others, Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson and Anthony Rizzo. Nor is there any sign that age is catching up with him: Per Statcast, his average exit velocity, barrel percentage and hard-hit percentage all ranked in the top 4% of the majors. He’s limited by his inability to play the field, but Cruz is a bonafide elite hitter.
That’ll play well for a Twins team that needs that jolt of power and an upgrade at DH, having given most of those at-bats to the weak trio of the retired Mauer, the departed Logan Morrison (a 73 OPS+ in his lone season as a Twin), and the unexceptional Robbie Grossman (five homers in 465 plate appearances). Cruz makes for a nice pairing too with C.J. Cron, who bopped 30 homers for the Rays in 2018 but was waived in November and snatched up by Minnesota. With those two in the fold and better seasons from Sano and Buxton, a Twins lineup that didn’t scare anyone should be a far tougher task for opposing pitchers in 2019.
With the lineup now bolstered, the Twins need to focus their attention on getting help for a pitching staff that, Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson aside, was a mess most of the year. Jake Odorizzi ate innings but was thoroughly league-average in the process, and the options behind him were even worse. Minnesota has a number of former top prospects to cycle through in the fourth and fifth spots, including Adalberto Mejia, Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves, and 2013 top-five draft pick Kohl Stewart, plus Michael Pineda, who should be good to go after 2017 Tommy John surgery. There’s not a lot of stability there, though, and the Twins would do well to invest in a reliable mid-rotation starter. Dallas Keuchel would make a ton of sense here.
Then there’s the bullpen, which spent most of the season throwing jet fuel on fires. Trevor May, who’s currently atop the closer depth chart, racks up strikeouts, but the men behind him are a mixed bag. New manager Rocco Baldelli will be hard-pressed to trust anyone but May, lefty Taylor Rogers and—if he can get right after a rough 2018—veteran setup man Addison Reed to protect leads. Oddly, though, the Twins haven’t been active in the reliever market.
Some of that can likely be chalked up to the franchise’s aversion to spending or long-term deals. Minnesota’s notable signings last year—Fernando Rodney, Morrison and Lance Lynn—were all one-year deals on the relative cheap for second-tier free agents. With Cleveland getting budget conscious, there’s an opening for the Twins if they make a splash on some top talent. Cruz is a good start, but there’s more to be done if Minnesota is serious about making a run at the AL Central crown.
There’s one other matter to discuss: the other teams in the running for Cruz, the Rays and Astros. The latter can likely shrug off this loss—after all, that lineup is absurdly stacked and added Michael Brantley earlier this month—but the former’s presence in this chase is interesting. Already we’ve seen Tampa be more aggressive than usual in free agency, jumping on Charlie Morton with a two-year deal during the Winter Meetings. Cruz would’ve been an excellent addition, particularly after the Rays dumped Cron for nothing.
With Tampa apparently serious about competing in 2019, where could the team turn its eyes as it seeks a slugger? A trade is the most likely avenue, with two targets standing out to me: the Mariners’ Edwin Encarnacion, and the Cardinals’ Jose Martinez. Seattle picked up Encarnacion in a swap of bad contracts with Cleveland and is almost certainly trying to move him ahead of a rebuilding season. Martinez, meanwhile, is a man without a position in St. Louis, given that he’s a woeful defender everywhere he goes. Either would be a good DH-only option for the Rays as Cruz would’ve been.
But it’s Minnesota who got him, and for relatively little at $14 million plus that club option. That a three-team bidding war resulted only in a one-year pact is surprising, especially given just how good Cruz is. Some of that is likely due to his age, as he’ll turn 39 in July, but it’s another sign that most teams simply aren’t willing to make substantial long-term investments in free agency any more. That’s to the Twins’ advantage here.