The Twins believed they knew what they were getting when Nelson Cruz agreed to sign with them before the 2019 season. A savvy power hitter and a veteran influence in the clubhouse. A well-traveled sage. Someone to push the club to the next level.
Two-and-a-half years later, Cruz is leaving for Tampa Bay, having been unable to lead the Twins on a postseason run. But make no mistake, he was the fulcrum of the Twins offense. And all that veteran leadership stuff the Twins sought in addition to home runs? Cruz went next level.
"This is meant with no disrespect to anybody else," said Derek Falvey, Twins president of baseball operations, "but he may be the best teammate I've ever seen in terms of the way he goes about his business, the way he puts his arm around people, the way he helps us become better in our front office jobs and coaching staff jobs."
The Twins are sad to see Cruz leave but glad he's in a pennant race. He was dealt to the Rays on Thursday, with minor league pitcher Calvin Faucher, for righthanded starting prospects Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman. MLB.com had Ryan ranked 10th and Strotman 17th among the Rays' top prospects, so getting two arms who could help the team next season seems like a reasonable exchange for two-plus months of Cruz. The 17-year veteran said during his exit Zoom interview — who agrees to do that, by the way? — he would be interested in returning.
But don't start dreaming of a reunion any time soon. The Twins roster will have to look much different for Cruz to consider coming back, especially since he is now with the team that finished second to the Twins in the race to sign him in 2019.
Cruz, 41, didn't lead the Twins to a World Series. Some things, like pitching, are out of his control. But he should be remembered as one of the Twins' best free-agent signings ever, because they got the best baseball of his career.
His .304 batting average in 258 games with the Twins is better than the eight years he was in Texas and the four he was with Seattle. His .386 on-base percentage was the best of the three stops. So are the .598 slugging percentage and the .984 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He just returned from his seventh All-Star Game and was the AL's top DH twice.
That's called bang for the buck.
He also was part of the record-breaking 2019 team that slugged 307 home runs. Eddie Rosario nicknamed the offense the "Bomba Squad," but Cruz was Papa Bomba.
There were also talks with teammates. The mentoring of young players. Trying to keep Miguel Sano's spirits up during the worst stretch of his career. And the nap room should be named after him.
The downer is that it didn't lead to more than the two division championships in 2019 and 2020. That postseason losing streak continues. And this season has been a gut punch.
"Yeah, it's a shame," Cruz said. "We created this team because we thought we could make it to the playoffs. Unfortunately, sometimes things don't happen the way you want them to go. And that was the case on our team. We're all shocked to be in this situation."
And when a team underperforms, changes need to be made. It remains to be seen if Michael Pineda and Andrelton Simmons — who also are free agents following the season — will be moved before the July 30 deadline. But the Cruz move had to happen; the Twins got two prospects and saved $5 million.
And, perhaps, he will wind up like another 40-something Tampa Bay athlete named Tom Brady, ending the season with a championship boat parade down the Hillsboro River.
"I guess it's a new chapter and I will embrace it the way I embrace everything in my life." Cruz said, "to go help the Tampa Bay Rays to win a championship."