Wetmore: 6 teams that could use a Nelson Cruz

The ageless slugger has just earned his 7th All-Star selection, and he seems like a natural trade chip this month. Let's find a trade partner for the Twins.

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1) Nelson Cruz is an All-Star

Congratulations to Nelson Cruz for being selected to his 7th All-Star team. His first selection was with Texas in 2009. That AL All-Star lineup went like this:

RF Ichiro Suzuki
SS Derek Jeter
C Joe Mauer
1B Mark Teixeira
LF Jason Bay
CF Josh Hamilton
3B Michael Young
(one of Cruz’s early mentors)
2B Aaron Hill
SP Roy Halladay

Others on that team included Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Jason Bartlett and Joe Nathan.  

Other former Twins made the cut for the 2021 Midsummer Classic:

Ryan Pressly (Astros)
Lance Lynn (White Sox)
Eduardo Escobar (D'backs)
Kyle Gibson (Rangers)
Liam Hendriks (White Sox)

Hey, MLB, I’ve only seen 5 selections for the Home Run Derby so far.

Having seen Cruz take batting practice, I can tell you that he would hit a few out at Coors Field. How about getting the 41-year-old in the HR Derby?

Related: Nelson Cruz Appreciation

2) A natural trade chip on a losing team, let’s find a landing spot for Nelson Cruz

We’ve reached the mathematical halfway point of the MLB season. Suffice it to say the Twins are not where they hoped they would be. I think I have 5 or 6 clubs that would make sense as a trade partner, just in case the Twins are looking for some guidance.

I would expect Cruz won’t be going to NL, since I estimate that playing in the outfield again would increase his percent chance for injury, more than offsetting the potential for damage in his bat.

Teams eliminated: Dodgers, Padres, Cubs, Nats, Reds, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Pirates, Rockies, Marlins, Phillies and Braves. That leaves 14 available teams.

And yet Cruz is too productive of a hitter to be relegated to Wise Old Mentor who sets a tone in the clubhouse and then occasionally pinch hits. Even after celebrating his 41st birthday Thursday. Not making a push? Then I don’t think Cruz at this stage of his career is the right fit for your club.

Teams eliminated: Orioles, Rangers, Royals, Tigers.

Down to 10 teams.

Given Cruz has proven his ability to stay in a lineup under many circumstances this season, I would not think that an acquiring team would be looking to pay the price tag to add him only to have him serve in a part-time role. So if you already have a DH entrenched, or the need for some flexibility at that spot, then Cruz might not be for you.

This one is a bit of a judgment calls. So right off the bat I’m eliminating the Angels (Shohei Ohtani), Astros (Yordan Alvarez), Red Sox (J.D. Martinez), Yankees (Giancarlo Stanton).

That leaves 6 teams, which we can examine here.

Blue Jays

Toronto ranks 12th of 15 AL teams in production out of the DH spot, so you might think they’d be a good fit. However, with the Blue Jays getting back George Springer to the lineup, they’ve mixed the DH spot around – Springer, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Randal Grichuk and the guy who bumped Byron Buxton from the third and final all-star spot in the outfield, Teoscar Hernández.

Cleveland

Despite seasons-long trouble to put good hitters in their outfield, Cleveland actually rates pretty well at DH (Franmil Reyes). Only three AL teams, including the Twins, have posted better numbers from DH this year. There are some people who wonder if Cleveland will hang around with a beat-up pitching staff for long enough to be buyers at this year’s deadline. They’re certainly hanging around, though, and if they want to give up one of those future-useful pitchers, then I wouldn’t think the Twins would ignore their calls or texts.

Seattle

Entering the year I’m not sure that I would’ve guessed the M’s would be in a position to reunite with a guy who must have been a favorite in his time in the Pacific Northwest. Nellie hit 143 home runs for Seattle and made 3 All-Star teams. He finished top-15 in MVP voting in 3 of his 4 seasons, including finishing 6th in that voting in his first year there in 2015.

This season, the Mariners rank 27th overall in offense and last among American League teams. They’re just 3 1/2 games out of the second Wild Card spot.

They’ve also used 10 different DHs this season, primarily featuring Ty France and Mitch Haniger, the latter having been considered an outgoing trade piece just a month ago. Now, with Seattle hanging in and some promising pieces, maybe they’ll hold on and instead look to add to the club for 2021.

White Sox

Chicago ranks 10th in DH production as measured by Weighted On-Base Average. Yermín Mercedes has drawn the bulk of the workload, and was one of the stories of baseball after the first month of the season. But lately it has not been as pleasant for the breakout hitter. In fact, he’s hit .162/.236/.207 with just 1 home run in the 6 weeks since he took Willians Astudillo deep on a 3-0 count and Mercedes’ own manager publicly sided with the other team in the ordeal.

Still, wouldn’t that be kind of weird if the Twins traded Cruz to the White Sox? (For new readers, I do not believe in the oft-repeated cliché that you can’t trade within your division; you should try to make a trade that improves your lot as much as possible, and if it so happens that the best return coming back – on an expiring-contract hitter, no less – then why would you thumb your nose at the deal?) The Twins should be worried about the 2022 White Sox, but the 2021 White Sox have shown in a half-season that they’re not going to be too worried about the 2021 Twins, with or without Cruz in the lineup.

Rays

I could see Tampa Bay making logical sense but to be clear it’s not a perfect fit. The Rays – along with the Twins and Astros – were one of the teams with strong interest in Cruz in the offseason before 2019. So they are kind of a natural link in that way. But lately they’ve been using Ji-Man Choi at first base and Austin Meadows as the DH, with an outfield alignment of Randy Arozarena – Kevin Kiermaier – Manuel Margot. So they’d have to shake up something with that mix and make more or an offense-for-defense tradeoff if they wanted to get Cruz in there nightly. Could be worth the effort.

It may involve some figuring but as one person put it to me this week, you can piece it together at DH or you can plant a flag and take care of one spot in the order by making yourself one of the best DH teams in the league with Cruz. 

Oakland

The A’s rank 11th in DH production, and I would expect that to drop a spot when Toronto’s bats overflow that lineup now that Springer is back in the fold. What’s worse for Oakland is that their primary DH this season, Mitch Moreland, was just placed on the 10-day IL with no specific reason given. I won’t speculate what that means but will point out that the team has given the indication that it won’t be a minimum stay on the IL, and that the primary DH is expected to be out through the all-star break. Instead, they may just turn to Jed Lowrie, who’s been a better hitter, but at a minimum takes away another offensive option. One of the team’s best hitters, Mark Canha, had two PRP injections in his hips and an epidural injection in his back, according to reports. 

At this writing, Oakland holds a 3 ½ game lead for the second AL Wild Card spot. Depending on their aspirations, a bat like Cruz might be just the thump that lineup needs. And now might be the crucial juncture. 

Related: Don’t expect the Twins to stand pat

3) Kenta Maeda looked good at last

After serving as a concerning sign for the majority of the season, Kenta Maeda gave Twins fans a jolt of hope Sunday against Kansas City. He pitched 6 innings, allowed no runs, ran up 10 strikeouts and 1 walk – the first batter he faced – and he retired the final 13 Royals hitters of his afternoon, including 2 punchouts each inning for his final four frames.

In a Sunday radio interview GM Thad Levine brought up the elite pitches that the Twins have had in recent years (not “pitchers” but “pitches”). Add Tyler Duffey’s breaking ball and Rich Hill’s breaking ball to the above list, and Maeda’s slider absolutely belongs in the conversation when he’s on. Well, the good news is that the pitch appeared to be “on” Sunday. And when you combine that with his fastball, average 92-93 mph with control, and a split-changeup that he can throw in and out of the strikezone, that’s a challenging task for opposing hitters. It’s when big leaguers can start to say, ‘Hey, I don’t think you can throw your offspeed for a strike, and I know you need a strike on this next pitch, so let’s see what you’ve got with that fastball.’ That’s when they become a sort of 2017 Astros-lite. In other words, it’ll be a tough day at the office for the pitcher.

Based on my scorebook, here’s how Kenta’s second trip through the order went:

Strikeout (slider)
Strikeout (split-change)
Flyout
Strikeout (fastball)
Flyout
Strikeout (slider)
Strikeout (slider)
Groundout
Strikeout Looking (fastball – although he should have had a swinging strikeout on the splitter earlier in the plate appearance, but the home plate umpire mistakenly thought the pitch was foul tipped; it wasn’t.)

Back to the top of the order with all the Royals’ best hitters for the 6th inning:

Groundout
Strikeout (split-change)
Strikeout (slider)

In the dense texts on What Has Gone Wrong this season for the Twins, this is one that I believe doesn’t get the attention it probably deserves. Sunday was Maeda’s best outing of the season, in my book. And would you believe it if I told you that it was the first time that last year’s Cy Young runner-up has completed 6 innings since his second start of the season? More than 3 full months of the season, comprising 13 starts for Maeda, and he’s only handed things off to the bullpen after finishing 6 full innings twice. And lest anyone is confused, this is not a “modern starters are sissies and should just pitch more” argument. I’m saying he’s been hooked very much on merit – Maeda has had about 3 good starts this year so far. I’d submit his outings against Texas, Detroit and now Kansas City to evidence of his good outings.

Longtime readers may remember that I was annoyed at the excuses provided to Maeda earlier this season. The weather was a little chillier than he was used to pitching in Southern California. Well, then hope it’s not cold in October…

That likely won’t be an issue this year, but worth noting that Maeda was wearing three-quarter sleeves in the Kansas City heat Sunday – and, perhaps notably, high socks.

To paraphrase an old axiom: 90% of pitching good is looking good.

I still remember his no-hit bid last year, and how in command he appeared that day against the Brewers. I kept the scorecard! And let’s just say that the mathematical second half of this season would be much more enjoyable if Maeda gives us a reason to hang onto a few more scorecards.

4) Matt Shoemaker DFA’d this week

The odds of Matt Shoemaker getting claimed if he’s put on waivers are technically nonzero, but I would imagine that they’re effectively nil. What happens then is that the Twins could outright assign him to the minor leagues but with his veteran status he could reject that assignment and instead become a free agent, free to go look for a pitching-starved organization in hopes of reviving his career.

[UPDATE (7/5): Shoemaker has accepted an assignment to Triple-A St. Paul, and will remain in the organization.]

It’s worth asking the question: How did it go so wrong? Just bad luck? Did the Twins not identify something that proved to be a fatal flaw for Shoemaker in Minnesota? Did coaches struggle to get through to him? I don’t have any of these answers, but I’m saying that the Twins should be self-critical here and ask themselves the most difficult questions in hopes of a better way forward.

You may have found yourself wondering at times, ‘Gosh, I wonder how different this season would have gone if the Matt Shoemaker Experience never made it to Minnesota.’ Well, the napkin math says that their starting pitcher ERA would drop by a full half-run if you take his innings out of the mix. Of course, you’d have to replace those innings with something, but it doesn’t seem like a stretch than you could do better than an 8.06 ERA across 60 innings. (And, painfully, if they hadn’t signed Shoemaker in free agency, there certainly would have been more urgency to go somebody else, and the masochists in the room will wonder what would have been if instead that Injury-Risk-But-High-Ceiling arm was again Rich Hill in 2021…)

True enough, with the benefit of hindsight they would have been a better staff without Shoemaker. But it’s worth noting this week that he has been far from the only sore spot on a staff that just last year was very good. Here’s a peek at the innings leaders for the Twins and their 2021 ERA.

José Berríos, 3.52
J.A. Happ, 6.09
Kenta Maeda, 5.03 (sliced a half-run off Sunday)
Michael Pineda, 3.70 (expect him back this week)
SHOEMAKER, 8.06
Randy Dobnak, 7.83
Bailey Ober, 5.84

(Notice, no Lewis Thorpe, Devin Smeltzer, Jhoan Duran, Jordan Balazovic or Matt Canterino.)

Two-thirds of Plan A has not gone to script, and the depth was basically washed out at the same time.

My personal stance is that they should be trying to win in 2022, in which case you don’t trade Berríos. The rest of that pitching staff is going to have get sorted for next year.

5) MLB’s crackdown on pitchers using grip substances will impact the run-scoring environment

Now maybe they won’t have to move the mound back? Or tinker with the ball again? According to research from Max Bay and relayed by Eno Sarris, more than 60% of pitchers have seen their spin rates decrease since MLB leaked the memo that they would begin policing the issue.

Now, it’s worth noting that RPM’s aren’t everything. But they have been credibly shown to impact movement and, as a result, effectiveness of some pitches. So logically we would expect that if more than half of the pitchers were using something that impacted their pitchers – and roughly 17% were doing what many (most?) would consider crossing the invisible line and cheating – then Josh Donaldson’s infamous prediction of offense jumping will be the natural outcome.

I was curious and so I did some digging.

Warning: math. The league did its soft announcement June 10 by leaking a memo and then sitting silent on the issue. From the start of this season until that date, MLB teams combined to score .117 runs per plate appearance. After that memo hit the ‘nets, that rate bumped to .124 runs per plate appearance. Put another way, in the new run-scoring environment, one more run crosses the plate every 143 plate appearances or so. (For reference, there were 74 plate appearances in Sunday’s Twins-Royals game, so call it a half a run per game.)

Strikeouts have fallen 5%; the league-wide walk rate has risen 2.25%; and OPS, for those who like the stat, has gone up 29 points.

Keep in mind, some of that increase could be due to the weather and other factors not considered in this analysis. But we can say one thing with certainty right now after a few weeks of the scare tactics and a couple weeks of enforcement: Offense is up in Major League Baseball when compared with the start of the season.  


With the 2021 MLB Trade Deadline coming up, this is a great month to try it out:

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