Nelson Cruz, a man seemingly determined to hit 30 home runs in every ballpark in America, has signed a one-year deal to hit 30 home runs for the Twins. Jon Heyman reported the contract is for $14.3 million for 2019, with a $12 million club option for 2020. That puts 2019’s value right around Kiley McDaniel’s AAV estimate from our Top 50 Free Agents list. That seems like a perfectly reasonable price to pay for the services of a man who, at age 38, is projected to produce about 2.7 WAR next year, though both Kiley and the crowd expected Cruz to secure a two-year deal, even with his market largely confined to the American League.
Cruz will likely spend much of his time in Minnesota as the Twins’ primary designated hitter, ably backed in that capacity by C.J. Cron, a fine power hitter in his own right and a recent waiver acquisition from Tampa. Cruz might also play a little right field from time to time, allowing Max Kepler to spell Byron Buxton in center; Cron will split time between DH and first base (sorry, Tyler Austin) though he could also, of course, be spun off in exchange for someone else, now that the Twins have reeled in Cruz. The winter certainly isn’t over yet, and the gap between the Twins and the Indians is still large enough that if the Twins mean to compete in 2019, we might expect another move or two from them before they’re done.
Here’s the reason for the deal in a nutshell:
You can quibble with the playing time projections a bit, because people are going to move around or out of town, but the overall message is clear: the Twins want to get better right now and are willing to pay real money to do so. In an AL Central division marked by rebuilding and a Cleveland roster that’s not getting any younger, that’s a refreshing change of pace. And there’s room to grow yet. The Twins’ payroll, even with Cruz in hand, is just slightly north of $100 million, and they don’t have a single guaranteed contract in place for 2020. Cruz stabilizes their lineup for 2019 without taking a single iota of flexibility away from the team in the future. That’s a deal you should do every time.
It’s true that you’d usually be concerned about a 38-year-old designated hitter falling off a production cliff, especially in a new ballpark. But Cruz has shown time and again that the usual rules don’t apply to him. That 132 wRC+ projection seems eminently sensible to me (it would be his lowest mark since 2013) and nothing about his 2018 performance at Safeco suggests the final, inevitable collapse is near at hand. Cruz may not be the hitter he was in 2018 next year, but even if he’s half that he’s a valuable addition for Minnesota. He will certainly be better than Logan Morrison.
And however you slice it, the Twins just added a lot more power in the short term; at least right now, they have three players (Cruz, Cron, and holdover Miguel Sano) who might reasonably be expected to hit 30 home runs, and two more (Eddie Rosario and Jonathan Schoop) who could match that figure with luck and a fair wind.
The Twins may not be so far away from contending. Pretty much everything went poorly for them in 2018, and they still won 78 games. If Sano’s titanium leg gets him back on the field with any consistency, if Buxton can bounce back from a wildly disappointing 2018, and, critically, if this Cruz signing is paired with other moves, you could squint and see how the Twins have the chance to be respectable in a division running low on respectability. The only thing standing between them and the postseason in the Central is a still-dangerous but weakened Cleveland squad (the Wild Card field, while theoretically an easier sell, is relatively crowded). The White Sox are still probably a year or two away from contention, and the Royals and Tigers are for the most part concerned with figuring out which way is up. If you’re the Twins and you still have money to spend, why not go for it?
Maybe Cruz will be bad in 2019. Maybe the Twins will be, too. But it isn’t a foregone conclusion coming into the season, and that’s more than can be said for a number of teams around the league today, including at least two in their own division. Nelson Cruz is a good baseball player and the Twins need a few more of those to be a good baseball team in 2019. They got him, and all they had to pay was money. This move won’t seal the division or the postseason for them, but it’ll get them much closer than they were last year. And if this is the beginning of a series of moves, it might be just enough to make the Indians think about spending money, which is a win in and of itself. This is a good signing for the Twins. On to the next.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.