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What Nelson Cruz adds to the Rays lineup

Tampa Bay lands this deadline’s first big fish

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The first big trade happened on Thursday night when the Tampa Bay Rays acquired right-handed slugger Nelson Cruz from the scuffling Minnesota Twins. This marks the end of a three-year saga for the Rays trying to bring in Cruz, as they were serious contenders to sign the designated hitter after the 2018 and 2020 seasons. The Rays, a team chock full of young stars, have now acquired two 41 year-olds within the last twelve months.

Cruz has been something of an ageless wonder in this stage of his career. He didn’t beak the 100 game mark in a season until age 28, and although he was an important contributor to some Rangers playoff teams, he wasn’t quite the same Nelson Cruz we think of now. In the nine seasons he spent in Texas from 2005-13, Cruz slashed .268/.327/.495 with a wRC+ mark of 114.

After ending the 2013 season under suspension for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, Cruz signed a one-year deal with the Orioles. Ever since, he has been one of the most prolific power hitters in baseball, showing little signs of slowing down. In his eight years with the Orioles, Mariners, and Twins, Cruz has slashed an enviable .287/.364/.555 — good for 48 percent above the league average as well as fourth-best in baseball during that span.

The remarkable part of Cruz’s second-half-of-his-career-resurgence hasn’t been buoyed by the first half. Since starting his tenure in Minnesota, Cruz has been doing the best hitting of his career. In 1,081 plate appearances as a Twin, Cruz has slashed .304/.386/.598 with a 157 wRC+ mark. Since the start of the 2019 season, only Mike Trout has outpaced Cruz.

This year, Cruz has a 142 wRC+. It’s not quite what he was putting up in his first two seasons in Minnesota, it’s still elite, and Cruz was still easily the top bat on the market. Interestingly, Cruz’s average exit velocity and hard-hit rate are among the highest in his career, and both markedly improved from last year. To go along with that, Cruz has cut his strikeout rate from 27.1 percent to a career-best 18.2 percent.

This is all good news for the Rays, who will presumably slot him in as a full-time DH upon arrival. Upon writing this article, the Rays are tied with the Mariners for the second-highest strikeout rate in baseball. Cruz injects a potent bat into a lineup that hovers around the league average overall, but especially struggles against lefties, as the Rays currently own a 92 wRC+ as a team. This season, Cruz is mashing lefties to the tune of a 171 wRC+ mark.

The Rays often receive criticism for not making ‘the big move,’ instead often parting ways with impact talent while relying on player development and exploiting market inefficiencies to create talent, rather than actively bringing in (or retaining) the talent needed to make them better in the short term. This time, the Rays get their man and paid a significant price, sending pitching prospects Drew Strotman and Joe Ryan up north.

With the top bat off the board a full week before the deadline, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the market shakes out, particularly in the American League East. It’s clear the Rays are gunning for the division, so the Red Sox may need to make some moves to keep them at bay — no pun intended. It’s hard to count the Yankees and Blue Jays out, as both remain in the playoff race and have the talent to make a run, but either team is a five-game losing streak away from being on the outside looking in.

Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay and freelance contributor to FiveThirtyEight. He has also been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.