The Odyssey Of Nelson Cruz

DETROIT, MI - Nelson Cruz #17 of the Texas Rangers celebrates as he runs the bases after his three-run home run in the 11th inning to take a 7-3 lead in Game Four of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Nelson Cruz is a postseason star for the Rangers, but he wasn't exactly a coveted prospect in his day.

A few years ago, if you wanted Nelson Cruz, you could have had him. And I'm not just using "you" to refer to your team, or pretending that a bunch of general managers are reading this -- I'm talking you. If you wanted to trade an iPod or something to have Cruz work at your linear accelorator, deli, or kid's birthday party, you probably could have swung a deal. Before Cruz got to the Rangers, he was traded three times. Here are the deals in order from his Baseball Reference page:

August 30, 2000: Traded by the New York Mets to the Oakland Athletics for Jorge Velandia.

When this trade was made, Cruz wasn't even in rookie ball. He was a 19-year-old who hadn't accumulated a single stat at the lowest levels of the minors. A scout for the A's -- who was probably 83 years old, confused, and irritable if Hollywood is any guide -- probably saw something in the kid, and whispered his name to the front office.

Velandia was a 25-year-old utility infielder at the time. He hit .160/.200/.198 in 81 major league at-bats in the seasons prior to the trade, which is about what the Mets should have expected him to hit based on his minor league numbers.

December 16, 2004: Traded by the Oakland Athletics with Justin Lehr to the Milwaukee Brewers for Keith Ginter.

I'm not sure if there's a better player to embody the stereotype of Moneyball than Keith Ginter. He was the penicillin shot after the glow from all the free love faded. In retrospect, Ginter's defensive numbers were hilariously bad, and it's not like scouts were at odds with what the metrics say now. He was a known clankmitt. But if you looked at his minor-league numbers and squinted a bit, you could con yourself into buying low on the next Jeff Kent.

In two seasons as a starter in Milwaukee, he did okay. He gave back almost all of his value with his glove, but he had a little offensive talent. After the A's got him, he had 137 awful at-bats, and never saw the majors again.

July 28, 2006: Traded by the Milwaukee Brewers with Carlos Lee to the Texas Rangers for Julian Cordero, Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix.

This is the one that cracks me up. Carlos Lee goes to Rangers as part of a deadline deal. Prospects go back to the Brewers. It makes sense that Cruz would be a part of that deal. But he went to the team looking for immediate help. The rebuilding team gave him up. He was someone to toss on the pile to balance the scales a bit.

And it wasn't like Cruz wasn't hitting during all of these deals:

2001 20 Rk OAK 88 3 4 29 .250 .283 .409 .692
2002 21 A- OAK 214 4 9 58 .276 .316 .397 .713
2003 22 A OAK 470 20 29 128 .238 .292 .430 .722
2004 23 AA-A+-AAA OAK 536 26 51 149 .326 .390 .562 .951
2005 24 AA-AAA MIL 456 27 61 133 .289 .385 .537 .923
2006 25 AAA MIL 371 20 42 100 .302 .378 .528 .907
2007 26 AAA TEX 162 15 21 34 .352 .428 .698 1.125
2008 27 AAA-Rk TEX 387 37 58 88 .341 .430 .693 1.122
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/13/2011.

Mind you, the PCL is a hitter's league, but he was still crushing the ball in Milwaukee's system. Yet he was the throw-in to the contending team making a playoff push. And he never stopped hitting in the PCL after the trade, but in his first two call-ups with the Rangers, he was terrible:

2006 25 TEX 138 6 7 32 .223 .261 .385
2007 26 TEX 332 9 21 87 .235 .287 .384
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/13/2011.

Quite a few teams would have given up on him after that 2007, and it's not like the Rangers held a spot for him. He had to go back, put up another 1.000 OPS in triple-A, and then hit in his 2008 call-up to get a shot for 2009, when he eventually broke out.

Up until about 2008, you could have had Cruz. Your team, your HR department ... whatever. He was undervalued for his entire career, constantly shuffled around and dealt.  Developmental paths in baseball usually aren't clean and linear, but they're rarely this fractured. Just a few years ago, Cruz was a AAAA tweener. Now he's a postseason hero, trying to help his team to the World Series for the second season in a row. All of his former teams would have a pretty good idea what to do with him now.

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