Zulgad: Mentor first, slugger second: Cruz signing is all about getting the most out of Sano

The Twins’ reported one-year, $14 million deal with Nelson Cruz should add some much-needed power to a lineup that was 23rd in the big leagues last season with 166 home runs. The veteran designated hitter belted 37 home runs for Seattle in 2018 and has 203 homers since 2014, including 40 or more from 2014 to 2016.

But the decision to sign the 38-year-old goes well beyond what he will bring in the batter’s box. That’s because Cruz’s presence in the clubhouse figures to give the Twins something they lacked in a big way during a disappointing 2018.

That would be a veteran player who doesn’t have to declare himself a leader and rather can assume that role simply with his presence. This is important for the entire team, but it’s obvious that Cruz’s number one job will be serving as a role model and mentor for third baseman Miguel Sano.

The 25-year-old Sano is running out of chances to become the star player that many felt he would be when he burst upon the scene by hitting 18 home runs in 80 games after being called up in 2015.

It’s been said many times in recent months, but the most important thing for the Twins this season will be doing everything to make sure that Sano and center fielder Byron Buxton get back on track after being enormous disappointments last summer.

Cruz and Sano are both from the Dominican Republic and the hope has to be that the latter simply learns what it takes to be a successful big-league player by watching the former. Dan Hayes, who covers the Twins for The Athletic, tweeted out this story about Cruz by Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times from March 2018.

Cruz’s success is no fluke and on and off the field he has displayed the type of dedication that Sano either has never witnessed or paid attention to in the past. It won’t be surprising if Cruz holds a corner locker in Target Field and Sano is given the one next to him. Cruz’s commitment to making himself better includes everything from getting as much sleep as possible to extremely regimented workouts.

Would things have been different for Sano if Cruz had been around a year ago? Would Sano have had to be sent down to Single-A Fort Myers in mid-June and not brought back until late July because he wasn’t hitting (.203, seven home runs) and was in no shape to play baseball?

Those questions are impossible to answer, but what is certain is the Twins lacked a guy like Cruz to take Sano under his wing. It was considered a coup last spring when the Twins were able to sign pitcher Lance Lynn to a one-year, $12 million contract and left-handed slugger Logan Morrison to a one-year, $6.5 million contract. Both had remained on a soft free-agent market and thus came at reasonable prices.

What the Twins brain trust of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine missed at the time was that Lynn and Morrison would either battle unhappiness with not getting their expected paydays or would have injury issues throughout the summer. Both flopped and added next to nothing when it came to team chemistry.

This is a subject that is often debated in baseball. How important is leadership and chemistry? The feeling here is it’s more important than most think — especially when it comes to guys like Buxton and Sano — but I became even more convinced of its importance upon Torii Hunter’s return in 2015.

Hunter came back to Minnesota for what turned out to be one final season in 2015. The immediate talk was how Hunter’s range in right field had deteriorated and how much that might hurt the Twins. Hunter hit only .240 but had 22 home runs and 82 RBIs in 139 games. The statistical production was fine, but where Hunter made his mark was rallying a clubhouse that had lacked the leadership he could provide.

This is nothing against Joe Mauer — everyone who played with Mauer seemed to like and respect him — but there’s a difference between being liked and having the ability to walk into a room and own it. Hunter had that and a Twins team that had gone 70-92 in 2014, finished with an 83-79 record the following season.

Cruz isn’t going to be just like Hunter, but the Twins have to be hoping his work ethic and the respect that others in the game have for him, will give him the same type of “It Factor” that will provide the type of guidance a guy like Sano seems to need so badly.

If Cruz hits 40 home runs to go along with that, the Twins will be happy. But if his home run total drops off and Sano becomes the 40 home run hitter, Falvey and Levine will be thrilled.