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Nelson Cruz on the Twins is a strange fit

Nelson Cruz’s contract is owner-friendly. The Twins are better with him on the team. It would seem to be a perfect fit, and yet ...

Seattle Mariners v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Minnesota Twins signed Nelson Cruz to a one-year contract with an option, and they’re trying to win more baseball games than they lose, just like they should be. At the risk of becoming repetitive, I’m suddenly proud of any baseball team that tries to do this after an under-.500 season. I shouldn’t be, and when the strike comes, the first words rattling around in your brain should be something like, “It got to the point where we were surprised that bad teams were trying to get better.” Until then, let’s praise the Twins for trying.

Like the Mets and Reds, the Twins are looking to improve on a disappointing season rather than commit to a never-ending rebuild. Unlike the go-for-it strategies for the Mets and Reds, however, the timing as it relates to their division is almost perfect. The Indians aren’t interested in getting better, and the latest rumors have them actively getting worse. Now is the time for an upstart team looking to punish them for their arrogance. Even if we all know the Indians are probably going to win the division by more than 10 games again.

The Tigers, Royals, and White Sox still slipping around in their own sick, and the Twins are extremely motivated, as they should be. They’re not exactly going to come home with Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, but they’re not tearing their roster down for prospects, either. They’re trying, bless them, and that means things like signing a slugger to a one-year contract.

In isolation, this move makes a whole mess of sense. Consider ...

  • The Twins needed power, hitting just 166 home runs (the league average was 193 last year)
  • Cruz hit 37 home runs ... which was his lowest total in five seasons. Brian Dozier is the only Twins player to hit at least 37 home runs since Harmon Killebrew, but Cruz has done it in each of the last five years
  • Because of Cruz’s age (38), the Twins got away with a one-year deal that even included a team option, which is something of a best-case scenario. If the move flops, it’s over quickly. If Cruz keeps hitting, they’ve got him for next season, too.

The Twins are a better baseball team on paper as of December 27, 2018 than they were on December 26, 2018. They should be excited about this. It would take a real cynical dork to poke holes in this move.


My theme music is the awkward coughing of someone about to be performatively wrong, so, yes, I have my reasons to be skeptical. It might actually be reason, singular, and it goes something like this:

Miguel Sanó has to play in the field now, which negates some, if not most, of the value that Cruz is expected to create.

Please note that I have never been wrong when I’ve tried to evaluate Nelson Cruz.

These two things can be true, then: The Twins are unquestionably better with Cruz, but it’s still weird that this is how the Twins have chosen to spend the bulk of their offseason resources. One of the goals of the offseason should have been to guarantee that Sanó was going to play in the field as rarely as possible. As far as winter goals go, it’s perhaps one of the easiest a team can accomplish. Write “DON’T SIGN A DH” on a sticky note, put it on your laptop, and refer to it often. Simple.

Then the Twins signed a DH.

Now the sticky note is still there, mocking them.

There was a teensy opening for acquiring a new DH once Joe Mauer retired, because Sanó can play first, in theory, where he wouldn’t be as harmful as he would be at third base. But filling first base was already a prong of this Twins’ offseason fork, with C.J. Cron and his dingers coming over from the Rays. Now that Cruz has signed, there are two choices: Play Sanó less, or play him at third. They’re almost certainly choosing the latter.

Which might not be the complete disaster that you’re anticipating. If you take Sano’s negative-six Defensive Runs Saved in 476 innings last year and extrapolate that to a full season in the field, he probably has enough juice to be one of the worst defensive third baseman since the turn of the millenium — somewhere around Miguel Cabrera in 2013 or Edwin Encarnacion in 2008 — but not the worst. He would be leagues better than Ryan Braun in 2007, after all.

But there’s a reason Cabrera didn’t play third after ‘13. There’s a reason Encarnacion didn’t play third after ‘08. They were so bad that, even in the eras before Statcast and a million different ways to quantify defensive value, they were completely untenable in the field, regardless of how much they hit. That’s the other side of this gambit, too: There are no guarantees that Sanó will hit. He was miserable last year.

So the Twins are betting on his natural talent being a deep reservoir that will bubble up again, and that’s fine. He really does seem like a preternaturally gifted hitter when he’s right, so I’d take that chance, too. The problem is that if Sanó hits .280/.360/.500 — something splendid and close to his 2017 season — he’ll be only somewhat valuable. His defense will drag him down and make him as valuable as an all-glove/no-hit guy like Freddy Galvis, Miguel Rojas, or Dansby Swanson. Still a net positive for the team. Still a disappointing season from someone who consistently thumps the ball.

If Sanó doesn’t hit, though, oh dear. This is the Twins without a safety net and nothing but the cold, unforgiving concrete below. A repeat of last year’s offensive performance, combined with full-time work at third, would wipe out whatever gains the Twins hope to get from Cruz.

It’s a risk, even if it’s sensible to risk it for a talent like Sanó. And, again, on paper, the Twins are better.

Wasn’t there a better way to spend the money, though? A pitcher? A reliever? An honest-to-goodness third baseman who could have allowed the Twins that safety net? I’m not entirely sure, which is why I’m dropping these rhetorical questions and scurrying away. At least the Twins got a legitimate and rare talent in Cruz. That’s not nothing for a team looking to allocate limited resources.

Wasn’t there a better fit for Cruz somewhere out there, though? A Yankees team that wasn’t satisfied with merely setting an all-time record for home runs? An Astros team suffering through a brutal one-year championship drought? A newly relevant and power-hungry Rays team? All of them should have wanted Cruz on a reasonable one-year deal.

The finality of Sanó’s position and the lack of competition for a 40-homer monster on a short-term deal are why this is a strange fit. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad fit. It’s just strange that Cruz needed the Twins to get his best offer, and it’s strange that the Twins decided that a DH was their best chance of improving on 2018.

In a division with an obvious front runner that’s not interested in improving, the Twins have improved by at least a tiny bit. They sure locked into a sketchy defensive alignment to get there, and it’s worth wondering if there wasn’t another way to fill out a roster, but they’re better.

The dingers will be fun, friends. The dingers will be fun. Maybe it’s best to plug your nose and cannonball off the cliff on this one.