What could Twins get for Nelson Cruz?

The 7-time MLB All-Star is still super productive at 41 years old. How much does that type of player typically bring back in a trade?

Nelson Cruz, who was decidedly not the most popular DH in the 2021 All-Star Game, came to the plate in a run-the 9th inning with a runner on base. Rookie of the Year candidate Adolis García had just hustled into second base to put a man on for Cruz, who was replacing J.D. Martinez, who in turn had replaced the man of the hour, Shohei Ohtani. The presence of those two men meant that Cruz only got one crack at it, and he was wearing a microphone so that he could have the pleasure of hearing Joe Buck and John Smoltz in his ear as he tried to drive in a run off a revived Craig Kimbrel.

One pitch, groundball tapped to first base, one out. The ‘productive out’ was the only all-star action Twins fans would see. Taylor Rogers was held in reserve as the “last line of defense” for the American League, a line that it turns out would not be needed, since sailor-tongued Australian Liam Hendriks locked down the save and became one of the highlights of the Midsummer Classic for some.

I like the all-star game. This one was short on signature moments in general, but from a Twins perspective it was basically over in a flash.

Now that we’ve found the teams that should be interested in Nelson Cruz, what is the expected level of return? He’s not that expensive, still very productive, and in line for free agency – if that’s what he wants to do – in November. Prorated, his $13 million salary for this year would pay him about $4.33 million in the final two months of the season. The Twins could decide to pay that down for the best return, or ask the buyer to take on the bulk of the salary owed.

To figure out a possible trade return, I’d do the same thing I did for contracts earlier this week with Byron Buxton and José Berríos. I look for comparable situations and try to learn something from each.

What could the Twins get for Nelson Cruz?

We should preface this entire discussion by saying that it’s an impossible task to find someone like Cruz. There just aren’t many historical examples of hitters who have maintained power and the overall ability to hit beyond their 41st birthday. Heck, two winters ago we were talking about veteran free agents getting frozen out of multi-year deals because they were on the wrong side of 30!

For the batting average crowd, Cruz hit .311 in 2019, the year of the Bomba Squad, and his 41 homers helped the Twins to break the all-time homer mark with 307 in a season. He followed that up hitting .303 in a weird year for everyone. And this year, his .304 batting average likely didn’t hurt his chances to represent the Twins in his 7th all-star game.

For the wOBA crowd, his numbers are even more impressive. During Cruz’s first year in Minnesota he put up a .417 wOBA and followed that up with .411 – getting on base and hitting for power; the hitter in the lineup that you have to worry about. This year he’s a little shy of that .400 wOBA mark, but remember that includes the stretch where he was playing through a hand issue (he was hit by a pitch), occasional visible discomfort running (he’s 41), a stiff neck from a coughing fit, and a persistent chest cold that has lasted multiple weeks.

Despite all that, Cruz ranks top-10 in the Majors in wOBA, slugging percentage and barrel rate. Hence, a deserving all-star selection, not merely a lifetime achievement nod. Hitters just don’t do this at this stage of their career. They’re usually golfing or in the broadcast booth, and instead Cruz is in the all-star game.

We went through the possible landing spots for Cruz, and concluded that the best fits outside the AL Central might be Oakland, Tampa Bay or maybe Toronto. I still think the first two make the most logical sense. With Seattle as a bit of a darkhorse given their preseason expectations, where they sit currently, and what he meant to that franchise. Still might be a bit early for them to push chips into the middle of the table, but we’ll see.

The point today is to find the approximate type of return we should expect from a hitter of his caliber, before we go digging through the farm systems of the matching teams in search of specific players.

The two most relevant older-DH-type trades fetched a young pitching prospect in each case. One was a 19-year-old A-ball pitcher named Juan Then, and the other was a former top-5 draft pick who had struggled in his transition to starting in pro ball, Dillon Tate. That kind of deal may not fit the Compete in 2022 Timeline, but it might be a reasonable path for the Twins to take this July with Cruz.

A look at the recent history of DH trades:

Ty France was traded to the Mariners last year from the Padres, but that was part of a bigger trade involving 7 players and the Padres flipping Taylor Trammell one year after trading for him.

Franmil Reyes

The next most recent trade for a DH was when Cleveland pulled off the Franmil Reyes Trade in 2019. Others might remember it better as the Trevor Bauer trade, a 3-team deal that sent five players to Cleveland, Bauer to the Reds, and Trammell to the Padres.

I’m reasonably sure the Twins could give up that type of quality – or quantity – if they wanted to. But we’re not looking for ways to acquire a DH here. At least I’m not. We’re trying to figure the recent historical returns for someone in Cruz’s position.

Edwin Encarnación

The first good example that comes to mind is when the Yankees traded for Edwin Encarnación in mid-2019. He wasn’t quite the hitter Cruz is at that point, but he was productive at 36 years old, and slugged .531 that season (34 homers). The Yankees sent a 19-year-old pitching prospect, Juan Then, to Seattle, and paid about half of Edwin’s remaining salary (roughly $7 million). Encarnación hit 13 homers in 44 games for the Yanks down the stretch, and they of course would sweep the Twins in the ALDS. At the time of the trade, MLB’s website ranked the pitching prospect No. 27 in New York’s system.

[Then is still just 21 years old and pitching in A-ball for Seattle, where MLB.com ranks him as the club’s No. 7 prospect.]

Let’s tie up the Encarnación thread by mentioning the 3-team deal over the previous winter that put him in Seattle in the first place. Cleveland added Jake Bauers and Carlos Santana in a deal that sent The Parrot to the Pacific Northwest, and Tampa Bay swooped in and got Yandy Diaz. Some other pieces changed hands in the swap, and given that it was over the winter, I wasn’t sure how much it relates to the two months of Cruz’s services that the Twins will try to sell this July.

Kendrys Morales

A month before that trade, the Yankees tried to solve their DH concern by dealing for Kendrys Morales of the A’s (who in turn had acquired him from the Blue Jays just before the season began). That wasn’t equivalent as Morales was, at 36, at the very end of his career, and his performance inspired the Yankees to go get Encarnación a month later.

Giancarlo Stanton

The most famous DH trade in recent memory is the one in which Derek Jeter sent Giancarlo Stanton to the Bronx over the winter for Starlin Castro and two young players. But that one was more about circumstance, salary and rebuilding, so let’s skip it for this exercise.

Young hitters traded for pitching

The 2017 trade deadline featured a few DH’s changing uniforms, but they were package deals and involved younger hitters, where the contending team was the one giving away a young hitter to help land a pitcher for the stretch run. Those hitters include Willie Calhoun (to Texas in the Yu Darvish trade), Teoscar Hernandez (to the Blue Jays in the Francisco Liriano trade) and Eloy Jiménez (to the White Sox, along with Dylan Cease, in the José Quintana trade).

Carlos Beltrán

Let’s stretch one more year where we can add one more example of an aging DH heading to a contender for the stretch run. In 2016, the Astros traded for Yordan Alvarez and the Royals traded for Jorge Soler, but those are the type of trade we’re looking for. The Texas Rangers had just lost Prince Fielder for the season and were right in the thick of it in the American League standings. The Yankees that season were not.

New York sent Carlos Beltrán to Texas in exchange for Dillon Tate, the former 4th overall draft pick the summer before, plus a couple of prospects. The 39-year-old slugger was owed about $5 million the rest of the season, and the Yankees agreed to pay half in the deal. The switch-hitting Beltrán was hitting .301/.342/.538 at the time of the deal. He’ll have a Hall of Fame case one day, as will Cruz several years later. The Rangers won their division by 9 games that year; the Yankees finished in 4th in the AL East. Around here we don’t talk about the Twins record in 2016. Although we should mention that it wasn’t great, and it’s the reason Derek Falvey and Thad Levine were hired to take over the baseball department.

Tate was the primary return for the Yankees. He was drafted the year before, No. 4 overall, in the draft that Dansby Swanson went first and Alex Bregman second – one pick before the Astros took Kyle Tucker and two picks before the Twins drafted reliever Tyler Jay. Tate made 16 starts with Texas’ A-ball affiliate and was off to a rough start with a 5.12 ERA and a bit of a walks problem. His fastball had been up to 98 mph, but he was in the low-90s in A-ball, according to reports at the time.

The Yankees made a bet on the talent that made him a top draft pick, and he pitched a few seasons in the minors for New York but never made it above Double-A with them. He wound up going to Baltimore in the deal that sent Zack Britton to New York, and there he climbed the rest of the way to the big leagues. He’s pitched parts of 3 seasons with the Orioles and has a 4.82 ERA in 74 2/3 innings out of the bullpen.

The Twins under Falvey had been keen on trying to uncover hidden talent in pitchers and then getting that talent to play up to its full extent. Until this year, they were looking like brilliant tacticians in that department. Will they look for a similar kind of bet to make this July?

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