MINNEAPOLIS — Nelson Cruz was looking for a new team last offseason after four years with the Seattle Mariners and the Twins were one of the clubs that interested in him. “They had a lot of young guys with a lot of talent,” Cruz said. “They had shown a lot of signs the last few years and it was just a matter of time before they put everything together.”
While Cruz was looking a new employer, the Twins were searching for a veteran presence in a clubhouse that lacked leadership during a disappointing 2018. Cruz was signed to a one-year, $14.3 million contract in late December. The deal included a team option for $12 million in 2020, or a $300,000 buyout.
Worst case, the Twins were hoping they had acquired an aging slugger who could provide guidance for Miguel Sano and other young players. Best case, the Twins hoped the designated hitter would approach the 37 home runs and 97 RBIs he had put up for the Mariners in 2018. What’s better than best case? That’s what the Twins have gotten from the 39-year-old designated hitter.
Manager Rocco Baldelli and players have raved about the job Cruz has done in the clubhouse and on the field as he has spent the season hitting home runs out of the No. 3 spot in the order. Cruz entered Saturday night’s game against Kansas City third in the American League with 39 homers and sitting at 399 career home runs. He was tied with Al Kaline and Andres Galarraga for 57th on the all-time list, eight homers behind Duke Snider.
Cruz’s 40th homer will make him the 26th player in MLB history with at least four seasons of 40 or more home runs, and he also is set to join Harmon Killebrew (seven times) and Brian Dozier (2016) as the third different Twin since 1961 to hit 40 in a season.
Cruz was slashing .299/.383/.626 with 103 RBIs in 114 games entering Saturday. He has spent 24 games on the injured list, having made two trips because of a left wrist strain, but that time missed and the nature of the injury makes his production at the plate even more impressive.
All of this makes Cruz the second-best free agent signing in Twins history. Atop the list is pitcher Jack Morris, who left the Detroit Tigers in 1991 to sign a one-year, $7 million deal with his hometown team. Morris’ contract had the potential to reach $11 million with incentives and one would hope he got every bit of that money.
The St. Paul native went 18-12 with a 3.43 ERA in 35 starts with the Twins and then won two games in the American League Championship Series against Toronto and two more in the World Series against Atlanta to lead Minnesota to its second championship. Morris, who was 36 that season, had a 1.17 ERA in three starts in the World Series, including his 10-inning, complete-game masterpiece in the Twins’ 1-0 victory over the Braves in Game 7.
Cruz, like Morris in 1991, appears as if he will get a chance to participate in the playoffs with Minnesota. The Twins entered Saturday’s game against Kansas City with a four-game lead on second-place Cleveland in the American League Central and seven regular-season games remaining.
Cruz is no stranger to postseason success in his 15 big-league seasons. He has played in nine playoff series with either Texas or Baltimore, including two World Series, and has hit .292/.347/.669 with 16 home runs and 34 RBIs in 41 games.
So who has Cruz surpassed on a potential list of the Twins’ best free-agent signings? The remainder of the top six is rounded out by Paul Molitor, signed to a two-year, $5.5 million contract to return home before the 1996 season; Chili Davis, signed to a one-year, $2 million contract to serve as the Twins’ designated hitter in 1991 (the contract included a team option for 1992); Jim Thome, signed to a one-year, $1.5 million deal before 2010; and starting pitcher Phil Hughes, signed to a three-year, $24 million deal before 2014.
Molitor hit .341/.390/.468 with nine homers and 113 RBIs in 161 games in his first year with the Twins and played two more years before retiring. Davis hit .277/.385/.507 with 29 home runs and 93 RBIs in 153 games in 1991 and added two homers in the World Series. Davis then spent one more season in Minnesota.
Thome was part of the Twins’ AL Central championship club in their inaugural season in Target Field, hitting .283/.412/.627 with 25 home runs and 59 RBIs in 108 games. He returned on a one-year, $3 million deal in 2011 but was sold to Cleveland late in that season. Hughes went 16-10 with a 3.52 ERA in 32 starts in 2014. He also established the MLB record for strikeout-to-walk ratio in a season, recording 186 strikeouts and 16 walks in 209.2 innings for the record-setting ratio of 11.63.
Baldelli might not have seen Morris, Molitor, Davis, Thome or Hughes during their time with the Twins, but he certainly has seen plenty of Cruz and admits he’s impressed both by what he’s seen on the field and behind the scenes.
“(He’s brought) just as much (off the field) as he has on the field and he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball,” Baldelli said when asked about Cruz’s clubhouse presence. “He brings a tremendous confidence to our entire group and it’s very apparent. It was apparent day one of spring training. He addressed our team, specifically our position players very early in one of our first group meetings and he definitely brings a strength and an energy and a confidence to everyone.
“People might be at home wondering, ‘What does that actually mean?’ What it means is you have a backbone, you have someone to rely on, you have someone that you know has been there before and knows what he’s doing and what he’s talking about. And in some ways (players can say), ‘Let’s follow this guy’s lead (and) we’re going to be OK.'”