While No Clear Leader For Nelson Cruz, Rays May Hold Slight Advantage

Rays Continue To Chase After The Powerful Cruz

Nelson Cruz is 38 years old, but father time has yet to put a dent into his ability to swat baseball’s a long long long way. In 2018, he hit .256/.342/.509 with 37 homers in 591 plate appearances. On top of the raw statistics he also finished tied for second in major league baseball in average exit velocity (93.9 miles per hour) and 11th in barrels per plate appearance (9.3).

With more and more teams placing a premium on the defensive side of the game to accompany the bat, Cruz’s market is limited to the American League — despite the gaudy numbers. His time in the field has all but diminished spending just 26.1-innings in right field in 2018 and 28 the year prior to that.

The Tampa Bay Rays have been rumored to be chasing Cruz to serve as their designated hitter supplying the right handed power in the middle of the lineup after designating C.J. Cron for assignment in November.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Rays spoke to Cruz’s agent Bryce Dixon who confirmed that he has had running dialogue and Cruz himself calls it a perfect fit. He notes there are three to four other teams interested in his client. Topkin notes that Tampa Bay is also be looking toward other players who don’t profile strictly as a designated hitter.

The other teams that have been linked to Cruz are the Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, and Minnesota Twins. There may be a fourth team, but for now let’s look at those three and the Rays.

Despite the perfect fit comment relayed by Dixon as of today, there is no clear cut leader in the clubhouse for his services, but the Rays may be slightly ahead of other teams.

Houston Astros:

The Houston Astros had Evan Gattis fill the DH role for the majority of the 2018 season and he hit .226/.284/.452 with 25 homers in 451 plate appearances. He only spent four innings at catcher in 2018. In 2017 he caught just 413.2-innings and base stealers were successful 90-percent of the time (35-of-39) with him behind the plate.

As Gattis is a free agent, and lacks positional flexibility,  it would make sense that Houston would be in search of an upgrade as their designated hitter. They could allow Kyle Tucker to start the season with the big league club and use the DH spot as a rolling spot providing players with days off through the season.

Most importantly, Houston more than likely will be in search of a left handed bat to help balance their lineup. As currently constructed the only left-handed bats (excluding Tucker) the Astros will have on their opening day roster are Josh Reddick and Tony Kemp.

The Astros would be best served in finding another left-handed bat via free agent/trade. This would provide the much needed balance in their lineup and allow Tucker more time in the minors before bringing him up. The addition of Nelson Cruz would seem to tilt a right handed heavy lineup even more in that direction.

Chicago White Sox:

The Chicago White Sox haven’t been shy about wanting to make a splash this off-season and have been tied to both high end targets Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

The White Sox designated Matt Davidson for assignment in November. He had served as their primary designated hitter through much of the season batting .228/.319/.419 with 20 homers in 496 plate appearances while logging 376.1 innings at first base and 107.1 innings at first base.

His departure opens the door for the White Sox to move the surprising Daniel Palka out of the outfield and into the vacant designated hitter spot. In 2018, Palka hit a surprising .240/.294/.484 with 27 homers in 449 plate appearances.

His production was hurt by his poor fielding. He roamed the outfield logging 193 innings in left field and 333.1-innings in right. Overall, he had a -11 defensive runs saved and -15.7 ultimate zone rating/150 (UZR/150).

It would be silly to suggest that Chicago would not be better if they signed Cruz as their full-time designated hitter, but the trade off of pushing Palka into the outfield puts a dent in that production gain.

It would seem more likely that the White Sox would look to fill other roles, primarily right field allowing Eloy Jimenez to play in left and Adam Engel (or an upgrade) to patrol center field. Certainly, the White Sox could go a number of directions but it would take more than Nelson Cruz to turn a 62-100 2018 team into a contender.

It would be more likely that Chicago looks for a more versatile, slightly younger player that they can ink to a multi-year deal. Andrew McCutchen (or others) may make a lot more sense here than Cruz.

Minnesota Twins:

Outside of Tampa Bay, the Minnesota Twins make a lot of sense for Cruz. The Twins picked up C.J. Cron to play first base and currently have a gaping hole at DH.

Minnesota could move the struggling Miguel Sano off third base and create a timeshare at 1b/DH between he and CJ Cron.  They could then sign a more flexible position player such as Marwin Gonzalez, but the easiest solution would be to sign Cruz.

Last season, the Twins were a disappointing 77-85 but have already added C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop to man second base. They also hope that the struggles of Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are behind them.

In 2018, Sano played in just 71 games batting just .199/.281/.398. He was demoted all the way to Fort Meyers in the Florida State League to work on his conditioning and his swing. This came on the heels of a very successful 2017 campaign in which he hit .264/.352/.507 with 28 homers in 483 plate appearances.

Buxton only appeared in 28 games due to injury in 2018 hitting .156 (14-for-90) in limited action. In 2017, he hit .253/.314/.413 with 16 homers while winning a gold glove and stealing 29 bases.

The Twins may also find value in Nelson Cruz, who also struggled to find his game early in his career, as a mentor for the struggling Sano. On top of that, Minnesota may feel they are closer to the 2017 Twins who went 85-77 and won the second wild card than the team that went 77-85.

If Minnesota feels that they are indeed in the mix to win the AL Central title in 2019 and 2020, they’d be more than willing to give Cruz the two-year deal that may be the deciding factor between offers.

Tampa Bay Rays:

Cruz himself calls the Rays the perfect fit. They are coming off a very competitive 90-win season and are returning most of that team. They are young and exciting and require a right handed bat in the middle of their lineup.

The Rays also have lost some leadership out of the clubhouse and Cruz would be one key addition that can help lead the way.

Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom said that some of the possibilities the team has looked at involve bringing in some guys with a lot more experience.

He’s excited about the young group that he’s assembled but knows the value of leadership on the team. “Every successful club we’ve had, we’ve had that right mix and we’ve had some guys with more time under them that have played a role.’” he said. “So it does factor into things. It’s obviously not the only factor but it is something that we care about in making sure we have the right mentorship for some of the younger players just to help break them in right is important.”

The Decision:

The decision that the Rays are going to have to make is whether they want to give Cruz the two year deal he is seeking. The answer to that question may be no, but none of the other teams mentioned may not want to go two years either.

The Rays seem to have a pivot plan in place that may involve a trade with the Cleveland Indians for designated hitter/first baseman Edwin Encarnacion and third baseman Yandy Diaz.

Encarnacion is signed for $20MM in 2019 and has a club option for 2020 with a $5MM buyout. It would be hard to imagine the Rays absorbing all of the $25MM owed to Encarnacion, but the Indians may be willing to eat a portion of the salary to make the deal work.

In 2018, the soon to be 36 year old Encarnacion hit .246/.336/.474 with 32 home runs in 579 plate appearances while logging 190 innings at first base.

While a deal involving Encarnacion has many more moving parts than simply signing Cruz, it shouldn’t be discounted as an option for the Rays to pivot toward if Cruz appears close to signing elsewhere.

In the end, the Rays would appear to have a slight lead in the chase for Cruz’s services but as with most things in sports it is going to come down to money. In this case the extra year on the deal.

I am a fan of all sports but am most passionate about baseball. From the fanatical to analytical, nothing about the game escapes me. Being born and raised in Northeast Ohio I'm very familiar with the heartache and pain that sports can bring and hope that I bring some understanding of the other side to my coverage. I will focus mostly on baseball but also cover the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the most electric franchises in all of sports. Always willing to converse about any sport and have only one rule and that is be respectful at all times.