FORT MYERS, FLA. — The Minnesota Twins front office often seems to be taking a page from the forward-thinking Tampa Bay Rays. There’s good reason for this considering the success the revenue-challenged Rays have had playing before sparse crowds in dingy Tropicana Field.
Tampa Bay entered last season with low expectations and exited it with a 90-72 record that was even more impressive when you consider it plays in the tough American League East. Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer, and Thad Levine, the team’s general manager, saw this success and decided to hire Rays major league field coordinator Rocco Baldelli as their manager, making him the youngest skipper in the big leagues at age 37.
While the Twins liked the Rays’ blueprint enough to hire Baldelli, and while they, and several other teams, borrowed the idea of the “opener” from the Rays in 2018, there was one decision made that the Twins felt was a mistake.
That’s why in November they claimed C.J. Cron off waivers after Tampa Bay had designated the first baseman for assignment following only one season. The surprising thing was Cron was coming off a season in which he had a career-high 30 home runs and 74 runs batted in and hit .253/.323/.493 in 140 games.
Cron, 29, had been acquired from the Los Angeles Angels for a player to be named in February 2018. So how surprised was Cron to be told his services were no longer required after a season in which he finished tied for 12th in the AL in home runs?
“I usually would be surprised but the offseason before they DFA’d (Corey) Dickerson, who was an All-Star and also hit 28 (actually 27) homers,” Cron said. “If you’re going to DFA a player of that caliber than I guess nothing is off limits. I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I was obviously disappointed that happened but I move on. I’m really glad to be here in Minnesota.”
Cron spoke Monday after belting two home runs and driving in three runs in three at-bats in the Twins’ 9-4 spring training loss to the Baltimore Orioles at Hammond Stadium. Those were the right-handed hitting Cron’s first two home runs in a Twins uniform but the expectations is there will be many more to come this summer at Target Field.
If you were among the Twins fans who complained about Joe Mauer’s lack of power at first base, Cron should be your guy. He’s going to hit home runs and he’s going to strikeout, too. His 145 strikeouts last season placed him 22nd in the AL and would have led the Twins.
Asked if he expected to play first base and be a designated hitter for the Twins, Cron pointed out that Nelson Cruz’s presence on the roster means there probably won’t be many at-bats to be had for other DHs. That makes first base Cron’s primary position. So why is he no longer playing there for the Rays? Here’s an interesting read from SB Nation about that decision. Making dumb roster moves isn’t why Tampa Bay remains competitive so clearly the Rays brass did not believe Cron would repeat his success from a year ago.
“He’s a good player. He’s a guy you talk about his offense, we got a chance to see a little bit of it today, he’s a big strong guy,” Baldelli said Monday. “He’s got a good loose swing, he hits the ball hard. He’s a good baseball player, too. He comes from a baseball family. (His dad, Chris, played in the big leagues, his brother, Kevin, also plays professional baseball and their cousin, Chad Moeller, spent time with the Twins.)
“He’s got good hands, we saw him make a nice play today at first base. He’s good around the bag, he takes pride in his baserunning. I stay on him on his baserunning, but he does take pride in it and he does a good job. He’s a good guy in the clubhouse as well, good personality. He’s a great addition. I was very happy we were able to grab him.”
If Cron proves the Rays wrong, and has another 30 home run season, he could cash in. He will make $4.8 million this season and is then eligible for arbitration. What will be interesting is whether the Twins see him as potential long-term solution or just a stopgap. Of course, if the 38-year-old Cruz only plays only one season in Minnesota that could open up more at-bats for Cron at DH in 2020.
Right now, his only concern is adjusting to life with the Twins. This includes getting ready to take over for Mauer, who retired following last season after playing 15 years and could be headed to the Hall of Fame one day.
“Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve heard nothing but good things about Joe,” Cron said. “I’m excited to get to meet him. I think he’s coming in here (to spring training) soonish (to visit). I haven’t really had a chance to talk to him all that much but I’m excited to be able to do that. But I just have to be myself. There’s really no replacing a guy of that caliber. He’s a Twins legend, for sure. As a visiting player, I remember coming in and you’re always excited to watch Joe Mauer play. He was kind of the face of the Twins. I’m not going to try anything special to try to replace him or anything. I just have to do my best.”
Cron’s biggest challenge early in spring training was getting to know a room full of new teammates. “It’s more kind of creating the team bond,” Cron said. “A lot of guys already have their friends from the whole time in the minors. So, trying to just get to know the dudes and kind of get to know them on a personal level is always good because the closer you are as a team the more successful you are going to be.”
It doesn’t hurt that Cron already is very familiar with Baldelli. Cron’s first thought when he was claimed by the Twins was that he would get to play for Baldelli and the fact the two knew each other helped a lot considering Cron said he didn’t know anyone else in the Twins’ clubhouse when he arrived.
“I think he’s going to be good,” Cron said when asked for a scouting report on his manager. “There’s a reason … I don’t know if he’s the youngest manager in the game (he is), but he’s definitely close to it. There’s a reason for that. He’s super smart, he’s very personable, he does a great job with the guys. Any question you have, he’ll answer it truthfully. As a player, I think that’s all you can really ask for. I’m super excited to be with him the whole year.”