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Zulgad: Wise investments: Where does Nelson Cruz rank on Twins’ all-time free agent list?

Travis Blankenhorn, Nelson Cruz
Minnesota Twins’ Travis Blankenhorn, right, laughs as teammate Nelson Cruz fires up the crowd before a spring training baseball game St. Louis Cardinals, Monday, March 9, 2020, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The Twins had little choice but to send Nelson Cruz packing before the July 30 MLB trade deadline. Cruz turned 41 on July 1, was playing on a one-year, $13 million contract and was of little use to a team in the midst of a miserable season and 17 games out of first place in the AL Central.

All of this resulted in Cruz being sent to the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, along with  minor league righthander Calvin Faucher, for two righthanded pitching prospects, Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman.

The Rays, who entered Thursday a game behind first-place Boston in the AL East and 2.5 games up in the wild card race, get a designated hitter who will provide plenty of power in hitter-friendly Tropicana Field. The Rays also get a player who one could argue is the best hitter the Twins have ever signed as a free agent.

The top spot on the Twins’ all-time free agent list for pitchers has to go to Jack Morris. The Hall of Fame righthander from St. Paul played only one season with the Twins, but it was a magical one and that magic would not have happened without him. Morris left the Detroit Tigers in February 1991 to a sign a one-year, $3 million contract with the Twins that included two player options.

Morris went 18-12 with a 3.43 ERA in 35 starts and pitched 10 complete games in the regular season before winning four postseason games, including two in the World Series against Atlanta. He had a 1.17 ERA in those two starts and pitched one of the greatest games in World Series history, giving up no runs over 10 innings in a 1-0 victory over the Braves in Game 7.

Morris bolted to sign with the Blue Jays after that season, but 30 years later that does nothing to take away from the fact his efforts on that October night in the Metrodome resulted in the last title won by any of the men’s professional teams we follow the closest in this state.

When it comes to hitters, the discussion is not as clear cut. Here’s one man’s order after consulting with Star Tribune columnist and SKOR North Twins historian Patrick Reusse.

  1. Paul Molitor: Signed to a two-year, $5.5 million before the 1996 season, Molitor slashed .341/.390/.468 with 113 RBI and a league-leading 225 hits in a career-high 161 games. In his age 39 season, he also reached 3,000 hits in September of that season, becoming the first player in Major League history to do so with a triple. Molitor then hit .305/.351/.435 in 135 games in 1997 and returned for a final season in 1998, slashing .281/.335/.382 in 126 games in his 21st season. These were lousy Twins teams with a phenomenal veteran hitter in Molitor. The St. Paul native had 530 of his 3,319 career hits as a Twin and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004.
  2. Nelson Cruz: The Twins signed Cruz to a one-year, $14 million contract that included a club option before the 2019 season. It didn’t take long for the Twins to decide to pick up that $12 million option for 2020 and then sign Cruz to a one-year, $13 million contract for this season. Cruz blasted 41 home runs in 2019 and 16 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, helping power the Twins to back-to-back AL Central titles. His 2019 total led a team that established the MLB single-season record with 307 homers. Cruz, who also provided leadership in the clubhouse when he arrived, departs the Twins with a team-leading .294 average, 19 home runs, 50 RBIs and a .370 OBP.
  3. Chili Davis: Davis had a miserable 1990 season with the Angels before signing a one-year, $1.7 million contract with the Twins that included the opportunity to make another $600,000 in performance and award bonuses. The Twins also held a $2.5 million option for 1992. Things couldn’t have worked out better for Davis and the Twins. In his age 31 season, Davis slashed .277/.385/.507 with 29 home runs and 93 RBIs in 153 games as the Twins won their second World Series. Davis had two home runs in that series. Davis hit .288/.386/.439 with 12 homers and 66 RBIs in 138 games the following season before returning to the Angels in 1993.
  4. Jim Thome: The 39-year-old signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract in 2010 and like Molitor, Cruz and Davis made a major contribution in the DH role. Thome slashed .283/.412/.627 with 25 homers and 59 RBIs in 108 games as the Twins won the AL Central title in their first season in Target Field. Thome returned in 2011 but was dealt to Cleveland after playing 71 games during a miserable season. He had 37 homers in his year-plus in Minnesota.
  5. Josh Willingham: The left fielder received a three-year, $21 million deal at the age of 32 before the 2012 season. Willingham made an immediate impact, hitting 35 home runs with 110 RBIs that season. His 35 homers made him the first Twins player to hit that many since Harmon Killebrew had 41 home runs in 1970. Willingham’s home run total dropped to 14 the following season and he had 12 in 2014 before being traded to Kansas City after 68 games. One could argue that Willingham should be replaced on this list by catcher Brian Harper, who signed before the 1988 season after playing parts of eight seasons with five teams. Harper hit .295 in his first season with the Twins before hitting over .300 in four of the next five years. He slashed .311/.336/.447 with 10 homers and 69 RBIs in 123 games during the 1991 season.