Nelson Cruz Reunites With the Twins

From the moment the offseason officially started five days after the end of the World Series, the most predictable headline of the winter was “Nelson Cruz Signs One-Year Deal With the Twins.” It took three months, but last night it finally happened, with ESPN’s Jeff Passan reporting the signing and’s Mark Feinsand adding that the deal will net Cruz $13 million.

Cruz, who turns 41 in July, is an ageless wonder, even though that number gives teams looking at eight-figure investments significant pause. Two years ago, he was a free agent after an exceptional run with the Mariners during which he put up a 147 wRC+ and averaged 41 home runs a season. He lobbied hard for a two-year deal, but most teams countered with one-year offers. It was understandable: Cruz has been defying the aging curve for years and has no value beyond the bat, so if Father Time suddenly catches up to him, he becomes a candidate for a quick release. Back in 2019, he was pushing 39 and coming off a declining season in terms of your standard triple-slash line, but the underlying metrics looked good, as his strikeout rate was actually declining, and his exit velocities were in line. Still, most models would not be especially kind to Cruz or any player entering his age-39 season. These are not the years when players start to slip a little; they’re the ones when players fall off the cliff.

Here at FanGraphs, Cruz ranked as one of the top 20 free agents on the market that winter, and I was shocked, surprised and frankly quite impressed to see that ZiPS still saw the good in the player, projecting a minor bounce-back 2019 campaign at .266/.348/.500. The Twins took the plunge by meeting Cruz halfway on his multi-year demand, paying him $14 million for the 2019 campaign with a $12 million option for the following year.

They were rewarded amply. Instead of falling of the cliff, Cruz instead rocketed higher, putting up a career-high OPS of 1.031 and making his 2020 option a no-brainer. The cliff avoided him again that season, and the production was similar.

Things flipped a bit for Cruz heading into this winter’s market. While ZIPS is still quite bullish on him, he’s gone from a declining performance/fine underlying data free agent to one with outstanding back-of-the-baseball-card stats but some concerning numbers under the hood. Cruz recorded the highest strikeout rate of his career, his hard hit rate went down, and his exit velocities, while still elite, fell a tick. Ben Clemens went into more detail on his 2020 campaign with an excellent analysis in September, pointing out the disturbing facts that he was hitting the ball on the ground more than ever and that his average launch angle slipped considerably. It’s not the cliff, but it may be the start of a tumble.

Even if the performance dips, though, Cruz adds more to a team than just what he produces at the plate. I personally did makeup digs on him two years ago, and they were absolutely shining. His influence in the clubhouse is outstanding. Young players look up to him as a father figure, and he leads by example. It’s not the kind of attribute you can place a numerical value on, but it’s something of real worth, and it’s part of the reason the Twins have turned into a playoff team. Nobody knows that more than Minnesota’s brain trust. I’m not as optimistic as ZIPS is when it comes to Cruz’ 2021 campaign, but it’s important to note that I felt the same way in 2019.

At a minimum, Cruz makes the Twins better and was an obvious fit for the club that knows him best, but many of the reasons that a reunion took so long were out of the hands of both team and player. Uncertainty over the designated hitter status in the National League created the chance that Cruz could have twice as many potential suitors. The potential for expanded playoffs meant the Twins didn’t need to be as concerned with winning the division. But with spring training two weeks away, changes to the game look doubtful at this point, and it quickly became in the interest of both parties to dance with the one who brought you.

How much better does he make the Twins? After the signing of Andrelton Simmons, Dan Szymborski pegged the AL Central as a dead heat between Minnesota and Chicago, the only good teams in the division. After locking up Cruz, the Twins are now slight favorites.

ZiPS Projections – AL Central Standings
Minnesota Twins 93 69 .574 63.0% 25.6% 88.6% 11.3%
Chicago White Sox 90 72 3 .556 36.2% 39.4% 75.7% 7.3%
Cleveland Indians 76 86 17 .469 0.7% 3.8% 4.5% 0.2%
Kansas City Royals 71 91 22 .438 0.1% 0.6% 0.7% 0.0%
Detroit Tigers 67 95 26 .414 0.0% 0.0% 0.1% 0.0%

Based on the rumor mill, the Twins are far from done, as they still need to shore up their pitching staff. The White Sox, meanwhile, have been quiet after being early players in the market. With a number of free agents still unaccounted for, the race for pre-season favorite in the Central, where winning the division is paramount, is still too early to call. Cruz, though, is a win for the Twins.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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1 year ago

Thanks for the article. You mentioned the high marks for makeup, but I am curious if you think the previous PED suspension alters teams’ views on him at all. Do they view a player who has been suspended before more likely to be suspended again? Is there any evidence that players who have taken PEDs in the past age better or worse? Or was Cruz’s suspension long enough ago to be viewed differently than more recent infractions?

1 year ago

I don’t meant this as a negative, but the signing team either believes Cruz has discovered an improved hitting approach, or has figured out how to mask the PEDs to such a degree that it doesn’t matter.