Nelson Cruz Exemplified the Value Of A Standout DH In Modern Baseball

Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski (USA TODAY Sports)

The long and winding wick of a borderline Hall of Fame-worthy career has finally ran out for baseball’s beloved Boomstick.

On Thursday, Nelson Cruz announced that he has officially retired from Major League Baseball. It caps off an 18-year career for the slugger who terrorized opposing pitchers for eight different teams. That includes a stellar two and a half seasons with the Minnesota Twins, where he was a cornerstone for the fabled Bomba Squad.

Through various ups and downs, Cruz exemplified just how much value could be produced from a standout designated hitter in modern baseball. And that all came to a boiling point when he signed with the Twins, and then again when they traded him away. While Cruz’s time in Minnesota was a brief chapter in his illustrious career, it was an important one for him and the team.

Leading into the 2019 season, the Twins were in desperate need of more production from their designated hitters. They had mostly used it as a flex spot in 2018, rotating guys in an out based on availability and opportunities for rest. Because of that, they ended up being one of only two qualified teams to have below-average offensive output from their DH spot on the season (.720 OPS, 98 wRC+). So they decided to bring in a veteran mercenary to provide heart-of-the-lineup power and corner-of-the-clubhouse heart.

Enter Nelson Cruz.

A spry 38-year-old at the time, the slugger was coming off of a phenomenal four-year stretch with the Seattle Mariners, where he hit a combined .284/.362/.546 (147 wRC+). Cruz wasn’t just the marquee bat on that Seattle club, but he was one of the premier hitters in baseball. The Twins had to be interested in the 137 home runs that he belted in those four seasons leading up to his deal, and his intangibles in the dugout were equally as appealing. The club wanted him to provide that stellar output at the plate while fostering an environment where he could mentor the young sluggers that were entering their prime years.

And the memorable 2019 season showed just how far that kind of leadership (and maybe a juiced baseball) can take a lineup. Cruz hit 41 bombs after inking a one-year, $12 million deal with a club option for 2020, and five other players hit 25 or more on the year. That was a club record, and Cruz’s fingerprints were all over it.

With the understanding that one Win Above Replacement is worth roughly $9 million in value according to Fangraphs, Minnesota’s investment paid off exponentially in that first year. Cruz slashed a brilliant .311/.392/.639 (164 wRC+) leading to 4.3 WAR, worth an estimated $38.7 million.

And his contributions to the clubhouse only added to that value. Cruz and first-year manager Rocco Baldelli helped to foster an environment where rest and recovery were not only respected, but encouraged. The legendary “nap room” in the home clubhouse at Target Field should be named in Cruz’s honor, and it seemed to work magnificently in that first year. Cruz also took on a leadership role by helping Miguel Sanó rediscover what had made him an All Star in 2017. Sanó overcame injuries and a slow start to the season, and ended up with his best all-around full season under his countryman’s tutelage. The swing-happy slugger hit .247/.346/.576 (138 wRC+) with a career-high 34 home runs. Again, Cruz’s influence was a major part of that.

The next season was an oddity for the Twins, the league, and the planet as a whole. Minnesota still won the AL Central in a pandemic-shortened season, and it waas another successful campaign for Cruz after the club picked up the no-brainer of an option. He virtually matched his 2019 offensive production on a per-game basis, hitting .303/.397/.595 (166 wRC+), again leading the team to the postseason.

Minnesota brought him back on another one-year deal for 2021. And while his final year with the club was a challenge for the team as a whole, it served a greater purpose. When the Twins became sellers at the trade deadline, they made the difficult but justified decision to trade him to a contending club. That led to one of the best returns for any trade by the current front office.

The Twins received current rotation cornerstone Joe Ryan for just eight weeks of Cruz.

Cruz may have fallen off significantly after that swap, but that deal will pay dividends to this Twins team for years to come. It also shows how much value he generated, even into his 40s. The Tampa Bay Rays usually make savvy trades. That they were willing to part with a young starting pitcher with at least six years of club control for 62 days of Cruz speaks to his perception around the league.

While the Twins benefitted from Cruz’s time in Minnesota and the deal that sent him away, fans can still look back fondly at those two and a half years of brilliance from one of the most powerful hitters of the 21st century.

He was more than just a standout slugger, a value-signing, or a nap aficionado.

He was our Boomstick.

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