Last night, we had our first big name dealt ahead of the MLB trade deadline on July 30. Twins’ slugger c was sent to the Tampa Bay Rays along with pitcher Calvin Faucher in exchange for two of the Rays’ top-20 prospects. Nelson Cruz is one of the biggest bats in baseball. Since 2010, no hitter has more home runs than Mr. NC Boomstick. He’s a huge threat in any lineup, but the question is: “Does he make the Rays the favorites in the American League again?”
The Rays have experienced a small dip in production the past month and a half. Since June 15, the Rays have just a .500 record. At the start of July, the Rays found themselves five games out of first place — their largest divisional deficit of the season. However, the Rays have since gained ground on Boston and, as of today, are just one game out of first in the AL East.
It’s not fair to say that Tampa has struggled at the plate in 2021. The Rays are below league average in both on-base percentage and slugging, but have still managed to put up the 7th-most runs per game in Major League Baseball. The Rays have relied heavily on smart baserunning and clutch hitting to win games. Currently, the Rays leave an average of 3.53 runners in scoring position per game — the sixth-lowest mark in MLB. Normally, that would indicate a lot of luck favoring Tampa Bay, but the Rays have done this so consistently over the past year and a half, that attributing this statistic to luck does Rays’ hitters a disservice.
Now, one quick look at Nelson Cruz might make someone think Cruz doesn’t fit in the Rays’ lineup. The Rays have one of the lowest “home run-to-RBI” ratios in the league, meaning that the Rays don’t rely on hitting home runs in order to drive runners in. Their ratio sits at 3.82 runs scored per home run — the highest rate of any team in the American League outside of the Houston Astros (4.03). Nelson Cruz, on the other hand, has a ratio of 2.63. He relies heavily on the dinger in order to drive runners home. However, using this measurement to judge Cruz’s compatibility with Tampa Bay isn’t exactly accurate.
First of all, a good hitter is a good hitter no matter what, and Nelson Cruz is a damn good hitter. He’s finished top-15 in MVP voting in six of his last seven seasons as a designated hitter. He’s arguably the best pure hitter of the 2010s and I say this fully aware that Mike Trout and David Ortiz might have something to say about that. Second, more dingers might be exactly what Tampa Bay needs in order to put themselves over the edge. The Rays are just 14-14 in one-run games this season. Five of those 14 losses saw the Rays score two or fewer runs, and five more came with the Rays recording two or fewer extra base hits. Imagine if Nelson Cruz was in the lineup for those games, one of the most prolific power hitters of this generation. He doesn’t need to go yard in every one of those losses, but let’s say he does in two of them, records a double in three, and a single in seven. All of a sudden the Rays have a chance to win five or so more games. Now, they’re four games up on the Red Sox and it’s Boston who has to sell two of its top prospects to keep up with Tampa. Keep in mind, the Rays are also tied for the third-youngest team on offense with the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners. Nelson Cruz is 40. He’ll definitely add some veteran leadership to that locker room. And yes, while most of the players on that Rays’ roster were part of that World Series roster last season, Cruz has been to two World Series over the course of his career, and he’s reached the postseason six times.
Thus far through the 2021 season, Tampa designated hitters have accumulated a WAR of 0.1 — good for eighth in the American League. To put that in perspective, the Minnesota Twins’ (Cruz’s former team) designated hitters have accumulated a 1.0 WAR through 2021 — third in the American League behind only the LA Angels and Shohei Ohtani as well as Boston’s JD Martinez. Basically, in 2021 Cruz has been ten times better than what Tampa has trotted out in the DH spot. Austin Meadows has been fine at the position, but he’s clearly not the menace at the dish that Cruz is.
Is Tampa now the favorite in the American League? I’d certainly think so. You could argue that Houston has the edge, and maybe they do, but if Tyler Glasnow continues his positive progression and does in fact return for the final stretch of 2021, I wouldn’t bet against this Tampa Bay roster. They’ve got talent everywhere, and they just got a whole lot more powerful.