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Retaining veteran slugger Nelson Cruz is a win for the Twins both on and off the field

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Minnesota Twins’ Nelson Cruz celebrates his solo home run against the Kansas City Royals during the fourth inning of a baseball game Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

The Twins owe a thank you to the Major League Baseball Players Association.

The union’s decision to turn down a proposal that would have kept the universal designated hitter around for 2021 in exchange for an expanded playoff field likely was the reason that Nelson Cruz reportedly accepted a  one-year, $13 million deal on Tuesday to return to the Twins.

Cruz, who will turn 41 on July 1, sat on the market all winter in part because he was believed to be waiting to see if the National League would use the DH for a second consecutive season. That would have meant Cruz could have been pursued by an additional 15 teams. Teams that would have loved to plug in a slugger who is 53rd on the all-time home run list with 417, including 57 over the past two seasons in Minnesota.

The Twins had potential replacements in mind — Marcell Ozuna was offered a contract on Tuesday, according to KSTP-TV — but it was difficult to believe that they were going to let Cruz walk. Not after what he has meant to this team both on and off the field.

Cruz signed a one-year, $14 million deal with the Twins that included a club option in January 2019. He proceeded to hit .311/.392/639 with a team-leading 41 home runs and 108 RBIs as the Twins hit a major league record 307 home runs and went 101-61 to win the AL Central. It was an easy decision for the Twins to pick up Cruz’s $12 million option for 2020 and he did not disappoint.

At a time when most guys are declining, if not retired, he slashed .303/.397/.595 with 16 home runs and 33 RBIs while playing in 53 of 60 games during the pandemic-shortened season. Cruz finished sixth in AL MVP voting and won a fourth Silver Slugger award as the the Twins again won the division, although their postseason losing streak reached 18 games, the longest in the history of North American professional sports.

The importance of Cruz’s return goes well beyond his statistical output. Cruz’s first season with the Twins also was Rocco Baldelli’s first as manager. Anyone who covered that team could tell the importance of Cruz’s presence in the clubhouse. Baldelli prefers to allow his players to police themselves and having a veteran like Cruz around provided the younger players with an example of what it takes to be successful. This included everything from Cruz’s insistence on pregame naps to preparing for his at-bats in each game.

Cruz had an especially positive impact on Miguel Sano, who like Cruz is from the Dominican Republic. Sano hit .247/.346/.576 with 34 home runs and 79 RBIs in 105 games in his first season with Cruz as a teammate. It was no accident the Twins put their lockers close together in the home clubhouse. Sano, hit only .204/.278/.478 with 13 homers and 25 RBIs in 53 games last season, but the Twins are hoping for a bounce back and Cruz not being around certainly wouldn’t have helped Sano.

Of course, none of the off-the-field stuff would matter if Cruz wasn’t still so productive at the plate. Entering his 17th season, there is no sign he is slowing down. Perhaps the most important thing to Cruz at this point is being part of a winner and he likely took note of how few moves the Twins were making this offseason. That has changed of late and adding Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons on a one-year, $10.5 million free agent deal this week had to be taken as a positive sign.

But adding Simmons wouldn’t have seemed as important if Cruz had left. On Tuesday, both Cruz and the Twins made sure that didn’t happen.