Just as I did when Ubaldo Jimenez signed with the Orioles, when news of Nelson Cruz coming to the Orioles broke, I went straight to the guys who know him best to get the inside scoop. Christoper Fittz, aka ghostofErikThompson at Lone Star Ball, went above and beyond with this outstanding history of Nelson Cruz. I gotta say, it really made me like him (Cruz, although I'm sure Fittz is swell). --Stacey
The story of Nelson Cruz is not unlike a Greek tragedy (Hey, Angelos!) for us Ranger fans. But as for Cruz himself, the man and the ballplayer, there's more triumph there than sorrow.
Ranger GM Jon Daniels likes to do this thing when he makes a trade where he asks for a lottery ticket prospect on the back end. In the infamous Mark Teixeira trade with the Braves in 2007, the deal was headlined by Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Elvis Andrus. However, the Rangers also coveted a 19-year-old in rookie ball named Neftali Feliz. That same year, the Rangers traded Eric Gagne to Boston for David Murphy and had Boston throw in tool shed center field youngster Engel Beltre. Feliz you know and Beltre has a great chance to win a bench job with the Rangers this season.
This trend arguably began the year prior when, in Daniels' first season at the helm, in a mid-season trade, the 2006 Buck Showalter-led Rangers "went for it" by acquiring Carlos Lee from the Milwaukee Brewers for a grab bag of Major League talent headlined by Francisco Cordero and Kevin Mench. Those Rangers finished in third place with a record of 80-82 and Showalter would be fired after his third losing record in four seasons in Texas. Lee left to sign with Houston and the only player the Rangers were left with from that trade was throw-in outfielder Nelson Cruz.
Cruz signed with the New York Mets out of the Dominican Republic in 1998, was traded to the Oakland A's in 2000, spent four years advancing through Oakland's minor league system before being sent to Milwaukee in 2004. Cruz was never considered to be a top prospect -- he was never ranked in a Baseball America Top 100 and his best finish in a team prospect list was No. 8 with Milwaukee in 2005 -- but he did have plus power and a great arm in right field. In two seasons in Triple-A in the Brewer's system, he slugged over .500 each season, hit 20+ home runs and seemed poised for a Major League opportunity in Milwaukee. Cruz got a cup of coffee in Milwaukee at the end of the '05 season before Daniels asked for him to be included in the Lee trade the following season.
At 25-years-old, Cruz was nearing the sink or swim phase of a Triple-A prospect. Cruz spent the second half in Arlington with the Rangers for his first full time gig as a Major Leaguer, and, frankly, he bombed -- and not in the fun way. Cruz hit .223 and struck out in nearly a quarter of his at-bats in 41 games with Texas. At this point, Cruz was basically considered an afterthought struggling to shake the dreaded Quadruple-A label of too good for the Minors but not good enough for the Majors.
The next season, at age 26, Cruz lost the right field job to a 236-year-old glory-hunting Sammy Sosa. Cruz still ended up playing nearly 100 games in Texas but hit only .235 with an OPS of .671. For a power-hitting outfielder, Cruz managed to hit nine dingers which was, shamefully, 12 fewer than the mummy of Sosa. Obviously distraught, and despite his penchant for raking in the high minors, Cruz spent nearly the entire 2008 season in Triple-A Oklahoma City after losing a Spring Training job battle to Jason Botts (You may remember Jason Botts from this game [sorry] because otherwise you won't remember him at all because he was terrible).
In fact, in the spring of '08, out of options and seemingly out of chances, Cruz was designated for assignment, dropped from the 40-man roster, and placed on waivers. And thus concludes the sad tale of Nelson Cruz, right? 27-year-old, non-prospect, on the waiver wire, available to all teams for free, and beat out by this guy. You don't come back from that, right?
It's been fun, friends. Enjoy the 2014 season. It's weird that Camden Chat asked me to write something about a guy who disappeared from baseball in 2008, I agree.
But wait, maybe Nelson Cruz was willing to try something a little radical (I don't mean PEDs. We'll get there. Be patient.). After every other team passed on the opportunity to pick him up, the Rangers assigned him to Triple-A again only this time then senior director of player development Scott Servais worked with Cruz to open up his batting stance to improve his chances of hitting outside pitches. It paid off.
Though the Rangers left Cruz in the minors for most of 2008, Cruz won the Pacific Coast League MVP while hitting .342 with an OPS of 1.123. Cruz hit a career high 37 home runs that season in the Minors. Perhaps more importantly, Cruz had a manageable strikeout rate and was drawing walks, as well.
Late in '08, after giving Cruz nearly the entire season to produce with his new swing in Oklahoma, the Rangers brought Cruz back up to the Majors. Cruz hit .330, dramatically reduced his Ks against Major League pitching, and hit seven home runs in just 31 games. Cruz was a Quadruple-A player no more. Enter Nellie Cruz.
Over the next five seasons, all in the Majors, Cruz never hit fewer than 22 home runs -- topping out at 33 in '09. That is Cruz's calling card. He hits bombs. Or Cruz Missiles, if you will. He was Mike Stanton before Mike Stanton became Giancarlo Stanton. A classic right-handed power bat. It's maybe no coincidence that Cruz's arrival as a valuable Major Leaguer began right as the Rangers began their current run of success as a franchise.
While Cruz solidified himself as a All-Star-caliber outfielder in 2009, his best season as a Ranger came in 2010. Though injuries limited him to only 108 games that year, he hit .318, had an OPS of .950, and helped lead the team to its first division title in a decade. And then, in the postseason, he began to transform himself into more myth than man.
While the history of the Rangers in October had previously been limited to that one time John Burkett beat the Yankees in Yankee Stadium before the Yankees took nine straight from the Rangers in the '90s, Cruz did a lot of the heavy lifting to send the Rangers to lands previously unheard of.
In the 2010 postseason, Cruz hit six home runs spread over three series and was easily the Rangers' best hitter. In his postseason debut, he hit a home run off of David Price and helped break a string of what felt like a million scoreless innings of postseason baseball for the Rangers. October was where Nellie was at his best, and oftentimes, that's the best way to make a fanbase remember you fondly.
And then there's 2011. Make no mistake, if you guys play the Tigers in the postseason, you have the ultimate trump card in Nelson Cruz. In the 2011 ALCS, Cruz set a record for most RBI in a postseason series with 13. He did it in six games. He won the ALCS MVP award, hit six home runs, and threw out Miguel Cabrera in a pivotal Game 4 play at the plate with the teams tied in the bottom of the 8th.
It was also one of the best throws I've ever seen. He followed that up by hitting a three-run dong in the 11th. He was Babe Ruth wrapped in Roberto Clemente for a week and I'll never forget it.
Before the 2011 season, thanks to a proclivity for hitting walk-off home runs during the 2010 season, I suggested to Ranger P.A. Announcer Chuck Morgan on Lone Star Ball that the Rangers should make a "Walk-Off Home Run Nelson Cruz Bobblehead promotion." And so, they did:
This almost seemed prescient when, on my 29th birthday, sweating out a tense Game 2 of that ALCS series against Detroit, Nellie made MLB history by becoming the first man to hit a walk-off grand slam to end a postseason game.
It was the best birthday present ever and is arguably my favorite moment at a baseball ballpark. It was then that I was certain the Rangers would win their first World Series title.
They didn't. You might have seen it. It was a pretty big deal. The player held most responsible for the Rangers not winning the World Series isn't the Cardinal who hit the ball with two outs in the 9th inning of Game 6 in St. Louis. It isn't Neftali Feliz, the guy who threw the ball with the Rangers one strike away from a championship. It's Nelson Cruz. It's Nelson Cruz because Nelson Cruz isn't a good fielder, was out of position, and made one of the poorer plays on a difficult ball that you'll maybe ever see.
David Freese, that Cardinal, had hit two other triples in his entire career before that two-strike pitch. A triple on that play was maybe the least likely outcome possible and was just about the only one that would have seen the game tied up. And so, Freese did the improbable and Cruz did the unthinkable. Now we had this paradox. Cruz, this modern postseason Babe Ruth, a guy who just moments before had been possibly the greatest October performer in franchise history was suddenly a Bill Buckner for a new generation. There will be no video of that play posted.
It was a cruel fate for a player who had languished in the minors, been left for dead on the waivers, was unwilling to give up on the Majors, made the adjustments necessary to realize his potential, and became an October legend. Now, Nelson Cruz was most identified with the worst moment of my sports life.
And thus, the tragedy of it all.
So, let's talk about the PED use. Personally, I've never been overly critical of players who use. I'm not against MLB policing it as they see fit -- it is illegal, after all. But I can understand why some folks may want to try to get a competitive advantage and I don't begrudge them for trying. Gaylord Perry, for example, is in the Hall of Fame partially because he was pretty good at getting away with stuff. In the case of Nelson Cruz, I actually buy his excuse. I do think it was more than simply cheating and trying to get away with it.
After the World Series, Cruz returned home to the Dominican Republic and suffered significant weight loss from a gastrointestinal infection. He reported to Spring Training underweight. This is something that was reported before anyone had even heard of Biogenesis. It makes sense then, from Cruz's perspective, to try to do everything he could to be ready for the season physically, especially after the previous one ended with him as something of a goat of a legendarily awful play.
I can understand if that's not good enough for fans. I can understand if that's not a good enough excuse for Cruz's peers who are clean. And I can certainly understand it being inexcusable by MLB's standards and practices. But I can also understand why Cruz did it. The last thing he wanted was a bad start to a season after the ultimate bad ending to the previous one. And yes, I understand how that ended up being a selfish decision.
It's worth pointing out that when Cruz was suspended for PED use, there wasn't a single teammate that voiced opposition to Cruz returning to the team -- at least not publicly, and I'd be surprised if it was voiced privately. The team had a meeting when it was announced that Cruz would miss 50 games and everyone said they'd welcome him back. In fact, Cruz did return for game 163 last season.
As far as Nelson Cruz the person, here's a quote from Jon Daniels during the 2011 World Series:
"He's a special human being," general manager Jon Daniels says. "How many guys go down to Triple-A at 27, 28 years old and are open to coaching and making a significant change? Nellie did that, and he deserves all the success he's having."
Nelson Cruz has a loud laugh, you might hear it from the dugout mics. By all accounts, Cruz is a good teammate and a good person. In 2012, he bought a firetruck for his hometown in the Dominican Republican because they didn't have one.
What Cruz isn't is a good defender. He's a poor right fielder. He runs like his hamstrings are about to explode. He still has a great arm so players don't run on him, but his routes to fly balls are often confusing at best. He's terrible at catching balls up against the fence (which probably explains Game 6) and when he's running down a ball on the line, it seems like the outfield is suddenly made of sand.
Cruz is also a streaky hitter (which probably explains the 2011 ALCS). Ron Washington liked to say that when Cruz is on, he's hitting it to the big part of the field. In other words, when he isn't trying to pull everything. When Cruz is on, he's roping doubles to the right field gap as often as he's obliterating a ball over the left field fence. When Cruz is off, well, it's Whiff City - Population: All The Strikeouts.
My hope is that Nelson Cruz gives you guys 25+ home runs, hits well enough to mask the strikeouts and slumps, and doesn't embarrass himself in the field. That Nelson Cruz is a valuable member to a team that is attempting to contend in the tough American League East. And that is my hope because I don't want to live in a world where Nelson Cruz is hated. Luckily, I believe for just the one year, at a reasonable price, Cruz should be able to win you guys over. Maybe he'll even win you guys some games via the Nellie Walk-Off.
Some of my happiest memories involve Nelson Cruz. Please enjoy your time with NC-17. Have a Boomstick on us.