Tampa Bay Obtains a Cruz Missile

With a week to go until the trade deadline, the Rays struck a blow against the other contenders on Thursday night, acquiring designated hitter Nelson Cruz and pitcher Calvin Faucher from the Twins for pitchers Drew Strotman and Joe Ryan. Seemingly immune to changes in offensive environment and the arrow of time, Cruz is having a typical Cruz season at 41, hitting .294/.370/.537 with a 142 wRC+, 19 homers, and a 1.8 WAR, the latter a spicy number for a DH in only 85 games.

Tampa Bay’s lineup has been decent but well below the level of the elite offenses in the American League, ranking eighth in wRC+ and fifth in overall runs scored. The outfield has been a particular work in progress when it comes to offense. Kevin Kiermaier and Brett Phillips have both been excellent defensively, but neither are run producers, and 2020 postseason standout Manuel Margot has been rather pumpkin-ified this year. Adding Cruz to the mix allows the Rays to use Austin Meadows and Randy Arozarena daily in the corners. The primary downside here is that Meadows has a rather long injury history for a player just in his mid-20s, and playing in the field every day could increase the risk of another trip to the IL. I think it’s worth the risk; the Yankees and Jays are slowly drifting out of the divisional race, and the Red Sox are dangerous just as long as their pitching rotation stays healthy.

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL East
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
Tampa Bay Rays 94 68 .580 61.5% 31.1% 92.6% 11.3% 0.0% 26.1
Boston Red Sox 92 70 2 .568 30.4% 50.2% 80.7% 7.1% 0.0% 24.2
Toronto Blue Jays 87 75 7 .537 4.2% 25.3% 29.5% 1.7% 0.0% 19.6
New York Yankees 87 75 7 .537 3.9% 24.7% 28.6% 1.7% 0.0% 19.5
Baltimore Orioles 59 103 35 .364 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 18.1% 2.2

Adding Cruz was worth about five percentage points of divisional probability for the Rays in the ZiPS projections, shifting the race from a fairly balanced 55/45 race to one tipping a bit in favor of Tampa Bay. Expect many more changes before we flip the calendars!

For the Twins, moving Cruz was inevitable. He’s been a fun part of the team, but when you’re fighting the Royals to stay out of last place, it’s difficult to retain the services of a free agent-to-be who is almost as old as I am. Minnesota has far more difficult decisions to make in coming days about players like Byron Buxton and José Berríos, who could be retained for another go in 2022. The Twins could even re-sign Cruz this offseason; he’s being traded, not exiled from the city for 10 years like an ancient Athenian politician. He’d be worth it, too; ZiPS projects a 130 wRC+ from him next year, which is one of the best projections for a 42-year-old I’ve ever seen, up there with David Ortiz and Barry Bonds. Not bad for a player who didn’t get his first extended opportunity until age 28 and may have been just a few bad months in the majors from starring in Japan instead.

The return for Cruz makes the trade an even easier one for the Twins. DH-only rentals aren’t known for bringing in huge hauls of prospects, but both pitchers acquired have a real shot at having a future on the parent squad. Strotman didn’t make our Top 100 list this year, but he’s one of Eric Longenhagen’s picks to make the Top 100 next time around. The key for Strotman, according to Eric, is that his velocity has recovered from his June 2018 Tommy John surgery, and he’s added a cutter to his repertoire. The concern about walks is one that both Eric and ZiPS share, though the latter is considerably more excited about post-TJ Strotman. Jumping to Triple-A with little low minors experience is not that easy, and the computer has him creeping over replacement level in the majors right now.

Ryan is another pitcher ZiPS really likes, thanks to a solid 2021 season; who doesn’t like seeing a seven-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio? The projections translate his 2021 season so far at a 4.38 ERA, which would play on most teams right now. However, Eric raises a word of warning about Ryan’s future role, one that minor league translations can’t really capture:

I’m a little less sure that Joe Ryan is a starter because his fastball usage remains so heavy. I write in his scouting blurb at length about how Ryan’s fastball has been so dominant even though it’s unremarkable in most overt ways, largely relying on angle. Ryan is throwing fastballs about 76% of the time at Triple-A in 2021. Per Synergy, of the 140 swinging strikes Ryan has garnered this year, 116 of them have come from the fastball, with hitters whiffing at the slider second most often, but just 18 times all year. There’s no current big league starter who throws their fastball this much. Among qualified arms, Frankie Montas has the heaviest fastball usage at 62%. Freddy Peralta’s usage was once in the 70%s but has come way down during his breakout. If the Twins can help Ryan find a viable secondary pitch, then we’re talking about a likely starter, but for now, I have Ryan projected in multi-inning relief. He’ll still be an important part of a pitching staff, though, his fastball is for real.

The only other starters I can find success with high fastball usage in recent years are Bartolo Colon and Lance Lynn. But even that doesn’t apply here; both Colon and Lynn have some quite different flavors of fastball on their menus rather than just one standard entrée.

As to the final player in the deal, Faucher is, per Eric, a pitcher who sits in the mid-90s with cut and carry, making him a bullpen option if the Rays can get him to throw strikes. The walks are a concern for ZiPS, and while it projected him at a 4.85 ERA in 2022 coming into the ’21 season, 24 free passes in 30 innings is a lot, and ZiPS now has his ERA around five-and-a-half. The Rays have a knack for finding talent in guys like this, so I wouldn’t be shocked if he crushes these projections.

While the Cruz trade may sound like a rich package for two months of a designated hitter, one of the pitfalls that smart people can fall into is getting too much in love with prospects. A team with a real shot to win now should focus on winning now. The Rays give up real talent, but they keep the farm system’s crown jewels and make it more likely that they return to the World Series and get another shot at their first championship. And isn’t that the purpose of all of this?





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

I think even if you frame it as the Twins getting back a couple of prospects who, while not locks to be rotation members, are pretty reliably going to be contributors next year in some fashion, this looks really good for them. I would’ve expected some lotto tickets from the lower minors coming back for Cruz, not two players who are going to be pitching for the MLB team next year.

OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

The other part I like about this is that the trade came the day after “NL teams interested in Nelson Cruz” came out. I thought at the time that this was pretty transparently gamesmanship on the Twins’ part, but to see a larger-than-expected package come back the next day makes me think maybe they really did successfully drive up the price slightly.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Apparently the Padres were in on Cruz, hoping to play him at first base. Considering that the Padres are historically very aggressive that could have easily driven up the price.

To me that seems a bit much, though. The Padres basically just need a single right-handed bat to platoon with Hosmer. But I guess the Padres don’t do “little” additions.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I think Ryan could be in the Twins’ rotation right now. Maybe he tops out as a back-end starter or he’s a dynamite one or two pitch guy for a couple innings at a time out of the bullpen but he would be a fairly good return all by himself, and Strotman is interesting too.

carter
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carter

I’d venture both get some time this year.