Twins trade Nelson Cruz, bet on 2 pitchers coming back

Twins get 2 interesting pitchers from the Rays. Today we'll dig in on Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman.

By now you’ve heard the news that the Minnesota Twins have traded Nelson Cruz. We all knew it was coming at some point and it still will hit members of the Twins organization hard.

The particulars: Twins send Cruz and minor league pitcher Calvin Faucher to Tampa Bay; the Rays in exchange send minor league pitchers Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman. Unless I hear that the Twins are eating some remaining salary, that would mean that the Rays are on the hook for the remainder of Cruz’s $13 million contract, or roughly $4.9 million the rest of the season.

My first reaction is that this is more than I expected the Twins would get back in a return.

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Tampa Bay was on my list of Cruz destinations when I wrote about possible fits earlier this month, and I won’t be the only one who noted the connection.

It goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway here. You’d rather be the team acquiring Cruz than the one trying to maximize his return value. But that’s a conversation for a different day, as is Cruz’s status among the legendary hitters in Twins history. This was the hand the Twins had to play when they woke up yesterday, so they played it.

I had written previously that recent DH trades of this caliber resulted in low-A pitchers headed the other way. I didn’t think that exactly fit with what the Twins were trying to do, so I wondered if they’d “aim lower” on a true-talent ceiling for a player that was closer to the Majors, rather than shoot for a guy who could be a star, but we won’t know for 4 or 5 years.

On the return

Ryan was drafted in the 7th round in 2018, the same year and round that the Twins got Josh Winder, and the Red Sox added Jarren Duran.

Strotman was a 4th round choice in 2017, just three picks after the Twins drafted Charlie Barnes, who recently debuted for Minnesota on the mound as a “crafty lefty” who fills up the strike zone with a good changeup.

In the Rays’ well-regarded minor league system, MLB.com rated Ryan the 10th best prospect, and Strotman 17th. That same publication slots the pair 6th and 13th in Minnesota’s farm system, respectively. Although it’s worth noting that the Twins system would look deeper if they hadn’t “graduated” several top prospects this year, whereas the top prospects for the Rays still qualify for that list, since Tampa held down two of the best players in the minor leagues until June this summer for reasons.

I don’t believe there are a lot of midseason updates there in terms of ranked order, either. Just to point out one example, Josh Winder is have an excellent (and healthy) season in the Twins minor league system and currently ranks 12th in the organization’s prospect list at MLB.com. I know that we can’t exactly use equivalencies here, but if you’re trying to tell me that the Twins just got two pitchers from the Rays in the high minors who are as good or better than Josh Winder — all for two months of Cruz and a minor league pitcher having a rough year — that sounds too good to be true.

On Ryan

He’s currently pitching for Team USA in the Olympics in Japan. Once he’s done with that I’m sure he’ll head to Triple-A St. Paul and fight for a chance to make his big league debut yet in 2021. Or, if not, he’ll have a case to make the team the following year. This year for Triple-A Durham he’s got a 3.63 ERA in 11 starts and 1 relief appearance. MLB’s published scouting reports like his fastball most and have a high grade on his slider, too.

The thing that first jumps off his stats page is the impressive 75:10 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a 34.9% strikeout rate as a starter. For comparison that’s a similar ratio – and an even better strikeout rate – than Josh Winder has across two levels of the minors this year for the Twins. Winder was at the MLB Futures Game this month and you’ll probably see him at Target Field this year or next. It’s also a better strikeout rate than a more heralded Twins pitching prospect, Jordan Balazovic (31.3% at Double-A Wichita). While it’s true what they say – that there’s more to pitching than strikeouts – when I see a guy in the high minors with a great strikeout rate and a great walk rate, it suggests that he’s got good enough command to dictate at-bats, and likely has a chance to compete at the next step up the minor league ladder. In this case, that would be MLB.

On Strotman

Strotman is the kind of guy that I expected the Twins would get back a Cruz trade, so it turns out that I was a little light, considering that some view him as just the “second piece” in the trade package for a star slugger. I don’t know exactly how the Twins view their relative value as pitching prospects. I’d be fascinated to know how the deal came together to also include a pitcher, Calvin Faucher, going the other way along with Cruz.

In any case, MLB Pipeline rated Strotman as the 8th best pitching prospect in the Ray’s minor league system, right behind former top prospect Brent Honeywell, who has seen his prospect star fade a bit lately due to injuries. [On a related note, Honeywell is the exact profile of pitcher that has been targeted by teams in these type of trades historically – formerly very highly rated and fallen on tough times, so a worthwhile ‘project’ for the acquiring team, with upside to make that risk of bust more than worth it.]

Strotman missed a lot of 2018 and 2019 because of Tommy John surgery, and like many minor leaguers his 2020 season was non-existent thanks to COVID. So despite getting drafted the year before Ryan, Strotman had just 120 professional innings before this season began.

Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said that the Twins believe he still may be working his way back from the surgery. And in light of that comment, his minor league numbers would be more understandable. He’s got a 3.39 ERA, but it comes with a 62:33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 58 1/3 innings this season for Triple-A Durham. A walk rate higher than 13% would be the worst in the Majors among qualified pitchers this year, and command problems plus a strikeout ability could be the sort of profile that eventually ends up in the bullpen. Not knowing enough about Strotman beyond this, I won’t make that declaration here, we’re only pointing out generalities about that sort of profile.

Strotman’s walk rate is a significant difference maker between he and Ryan in my view. Ryan’s ratio of strikeouts-to-walk is 7.5:1, whereas Strotman’s is a little worse than 2:1. Long is the list of pitchers who could be something special if they could just develop above-average control.

Takeaway

I have no doubt that Cruz was a highly coveted bat ahead of the trade deadline. I’ll guess that the Twins went to the teams that had expressed interest and asked for the best offer. They’ll have a lot of deals to do if they’re going to maximize the trade deadline, so getting one very big one out of the way early must be a welcomed outcome. For the Rays to give up a couple high-minors pitchers – at least one of which could very well debut this year and/or compete for a spot on the staff next year, perhaps they viewed the secondary part of the deal – a Strotman for Faucher swap – helped add to the pot and make it worth Minnesota’s while to let go of Cruz a week early.

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