What the Twins Might do at DH if Nelson Cruz Departs
Nobody wants to think about it -- but it could happen!
I keep saying it — the Minnesota Twins need Nelson Cruz more than he needs them.
That could be doubly true if the National League institutes the designated hitter in 2021, though the message seems to be mixed as far as if that’s likely to happen.
Cruz reportedly wants a two-year deal; it’s unclear what the Twins are willing to offer but he seems amenable to returning if the figures are correct. Furthermore, he appears content to wait out the market until finding out if his market will include 15 teams or all 30.
So the uncomfortable truth is that the Twins have to be aware of a potential future without Cruz — and perhaps even start preparing for it.
Who could be the next DH for the Twins? Internally, the team could consider Brent Rooker or Miguel Sano for the job. Rooker acquitted himself well in a small sample size this past season — .316/.381/.579 — but it was only 21 plate appearances and his only free passes were a pair of pitches that hit him, including the one that ended his season.
Strikeouts could also be an issue for Rooker; he fanned 28.2 percent of the time in 1,110 minor-league plate appearances.
Moving Sano to DH would require one of two things — shifting someone like Rooker or Alex Kirilloff to first base, or signing an external first baseman.
We’ll explore sort of a hybrid of all of those situations — as it pertains to outside talent — here.
Santana’s second act with Cleveland started out hot, as he hit .281/.397/.515 in the year of the juiced ball with 34 homers and a 15.7 percent walk and strikeout rate. That pretty much fits the sabermetric ideal of a DH. He slumped to .199/.349/.350 in 2020, and his average exit velocity dropped not only nearly 4.0 mph from 2019, but about 2.0 percent beneath what he’d averaged in the Statcast era.
His monthly splits don’t leave much hope for a resurgence, as he posted a .716 OPS in 35 games between July and August and a .669 mark in September.
None of this is to say he’s completely cooked, but he’ll turn 35 on April 8 so it remains a possibility. On a one-year deal, he’d make sense as the guy who gets the first look but could be DFA’d in June with the position then being handed over to Rooker. Teams tend to do this — sign a veteran and let the youngster force their way into the team’s plans — and that can be doubly true for teams with aspirations of contention.
Santana is the ultimate boom-or-bust proposition, but Steamer projections remain optimistic with a .240/.362/.440 projection (112 wRC+) and 26 home runs. Whether he’d push Sano to DH entirely or just take over the spot would remain to be seen; most likely, he’d spell Sano at first base occasionally or be the fill-in there if Sano needs to miss any time.
Furthermore: Derek Falvey is no doubt familiar with Santana from their time in Cleveland.
Cron suffered an unfortunate injury to his knee — a dislocated kneecap — which ended his season with the Detroit Tigers after just 13 games. Cron was hitting .190/.346/.548 (139 wRC+) without much time for any of his rates — or batting average — to stabilize. He pasted the baseball with the Twins in 2019 (91.1 mph average exit velocity, which would have ranked among the top 30 in baseball had he totaled enough plate appearances to qualify for the leaderboard.
That dropped to just 85.5 mph last season, but again it wasn’t much time to normalize.
Cron could also be a good mix-and-match parter between DH and 1B with Sano, depending upon how his knee is healing and how much time he’d need to either not play defense or simply take games off as part of his return to form.
Cron is obviously familiar with the Twins and they him as well, though it’s worth wondering how he’d feel about returning to the team who non-tendered him after the 2019 season.
Sanchez had a disastrous season with the Yankees last season and appears headed to a possible non-tender. MLB Trade Rumors predicts he’ll get in the neighborhood of $5.5 million in arbitration this season, a number that might prove untenable with the team clearly not trusting him to catch on a regular basis.
Even with his brutal 2020 season — .147/.253/.365 — he’s a career .236/.320/.502 hitter, and if he doesn’t ever again don a fielding glove he still could be a difference-maker with the bat. After all, his peak was hitting .278/.345/.531 in 2017, and there’s no telling what he can do when he won’t have to worry at all about the defensive side of the game.
Steamer projects a line of .222/.310/.478 (104 wRC+) for what it’s worth. On a one-year, prove-it deal, that could make a lot of sense.
There’s really no telling what the plan for Andujar is with the Yankees. He hit just .242/.277/.355 in 21 games as the Bombers tried to shoehorn him into the rotation in left field, and the results were not great. He wasn’t much better at third base, either.
I follow a lot of Yankee-types on Twitter and it seems like the general consensus is they want him gone. He’s arbitration-eligible for the first time this season, but has hit just .193/.219/.257 in just 33 MLB games over the last two seasons with serious shoulder surgery shoehorned in there.
Steamer projects Andujar for a line similar to Sanchez — .267/.310/.469 — which is pretty much the Eddie Rosario special, albeit at a much lower cost. Andujar peaked at .297/.328/.527 in 2018 — again, another Rosario-type of season — and is still young enough (26 in March) to suggest there could be more development to come.
If the price was right (read: cheap) he could be a fit.
For Grossman, the name of the game is simple — get on base. He’s posted double-digit walk rates every season since 2016 — his first with the Twins — and he’s improved to the point where he’s passable in the outfield as well.
The Twins could use some left-field insurance until they deem Kirilloff ready for everyday action — which could be as early as Opening Day — and between that spot and DH, Grossman could carry some low-key value as a top-of-the-order on-base guy to get on in front of the meat of the order.
He hit .241/.344/.482 in 2020 (126 wRC+), by the way. Among Twins players, that would have slotted him ahead of Ryan Jeffers (119) and below Josh Donaldson (129).
Brantley would be another outfield-DH hybrid for the Twins, though he’d likely come at a price above what they’d be willing to spend on a spot they probably believe they can fill internally in the near future.
Brantley almost never strikes out (10.8 percent career rate) and is a career .297/.354/.457 (117 wRC+) hitter. That’s not necessarily going to blow the doors off, but he consistently gives good plate appearances and can play a respectable left field if needed as well.
The Cleveland connection is also in play.
With that said, there’s no guarantee he’d outproduce Rosario, who could simply be brought back on a one-year deal for his final year of club control. This doesn’t seem too likely.
Thames struggled mightily in 2020 with the Nationals — .203/.300/.317 — but has consistently hit righties since returning from the KBO. Since his return to MLB in 2017, Thames has hit .247/.349/.507 against righties (120 wRC+), but the primary issue here is that he doesn’t solve the team’s woes against left-handed pitching. This would be a “late-in-the-offseason” dart throw.
Renfroe plays a decent left field and has a lot of power, but didn’t hit at all in 2020 and was DFA’d by the Rays. Whatever team picks him up will have club control through 2023, and he has the kind of power that can’t be taught.
But it’s unclear what the ceiling here is. His slash line kind of follows the Rosario path, but with way more strikeouts. In other words, he does about the same with the balls he puts in play — but he does it far less frequently.
With all that in mind, he’s a career .258/.339/.573 hitter against lefties — so as a platoon bat while still on the cheap side, he could be of particular interest to the Twins’ specific needs. A platoon with Renfroe and Jake Cave in left could be especially productive and not particularly expensive.
Schwarber was selected one pick ahead of the Twins selection in 2014 — when they took Nick Gordon. He was touted as a polished college hitter and for the most part he’s lived up to that billing with a career slash line of .230/.336/.480.
He’s listed as a potential non-tender candidate because MLBTR expects him to get about $8 million in arbitration, he hit just .188/.308/.393 in 2020 and the Chicago Cubs are in strict budget-slashing mode.
Schwarber is just one year removed from hitting .250/.339/.531 in the year of the juiced ball, but he’s been a consistent 115-125 wRC+ guy for his entire MLB career.
He’s had his moments in left field but isn’t as bad as people think, but he also isn’t a cure for the Twins being too weak against southpaws. He’s just a career .197/.301/.348 hitter against them.
Then again, if he’s replacing Rosario’s roster spot, maybe he doesn’t have to move the needle in that respect.
Nunez was a surprise DFA by the Baltimore Orioles at the 40-man addition deadline. And while he’s hit a good, but not great .247/.314/.469 over the last two years, I kind of get the sense he could be a Edwin Encarnacion/Cruz-style late bloomer.
Between 2019 and 2020, Nunez hit 43 home runs. That’s the same number as Donaldson. That’s only two behind Rosario. That’s as many as J.D. Martinez.
There’s definite swing-and-miss in his profile. While his strikeout rates haven’t been egregious, his career rate is 13.4 percent as it pertains to swinging strikes. It was 14.3 percent this year. That was 28th highest among the 142 MLB qualifiers this season per Fangraphs.
The right-handed hitting Nunez could be a factor for the Twins in a couple of ways. First of all, he’d be Donaldson insurance at third base. He’s not particularly good over there, but he’d give the team some depth.
Secondly, he hit lefties quite well in 2019 — .270/.326/.510 — though it’s unclear if that’s a trend or a mirage. In 2020 he had just a .655 OPS vs. lefties — and a .859 mark against righties, oddly — but his career marks don’t indicate much in the way of splits. He’s a career .245/.316/.454 hitter against righties and a .252/.306/.446 hitter against lefties.
But I think the fact that he’s hit lefties great one year and righties great the other — albeit in a small sample size — is indicative of something being there. I think as a low-cost, DH/3B insurance type, Nunez could be a terrific fit for the Twins.
Martinez went through a terrible .182/.265/.295 season between Tampa Bay and Chicago, but he was a .298/.363/.458 hitter in four seasons with St. Louis and could be an even cheaper alternative to Grossman.
He’s also a career .307/.382/.534 hitter.
No, this isn’t just because he’s my doppelganger. He’s also a talented big-league hitter. While he hit just .208 in 2019, that came with 30 homers and a 111 wRC+. He was hitting .238/.375/.505 with 21 homers at the break that season — enough to garner him an All-Star nod before he nosedived to .162/.286/.341 in the second half.
Vogelbach is the essence of a journeyman — he played with three teams alone in 2020 — but has incredible on-base skills and power besides. His .409 career slugging percentage is cause for pause — yeesh, that rhymed — but in the last two years that number has jumped to a little more palatable .430.
If the Twins decide to take a flyer on a guy, they could do worse than this. He also, however, is dreadful against lefties.
If Brantley isn’t the most underrated hitter of this generation, Choo might be. Last year was the first time he didn’t post an OBP over .350 since 2014, and his career line of .275/.377/.447 mixes extra-base pop with a strong eye at the plate. There’s a Texas/Thad Levine connection here and it’d be a short-term thing with Choo entering his age-38 season.
He too doesn’t make the Twins less left-handed, and he’s just a .242/.340/.351 hitter against southpaws in his career.
It’s altogether possible Encarnacion has reached the end of the line at 37. He’ll be 38 in January and hit just .157/.250/.377 in 181 plate appearances this season. His average exit velocity plummeted to 85.4 mph — seventh-lowest among MLB hitters if he’d had enough plate appearances to qualify — he struck out 29.8 percent of the time — a more than 8.0 percent increase from 2019.
There isn’t much hope in EE’s splits, either. He had just a .608 OPS against righties and just a .699 mark against lefties. His best month was August and he hit just .194/.299/.478.
If there’s anything still left in there statistically, I trust the Twins could and would find it. I’m just not sure I’m seeing it. Not everyone can do what Cruz does. In fact, maybe no one can.
Braun got into 39 games this year for the Brewers and hit .233/.281/.488. The power is still respectable, but he hasn’t been a big difference-making hitter since 2016. He turned 37 a week ago and his 89.8 mph average exit velocity was more than a full tick beneath his Statcast-era average. He doesn’t really walk anymore and was abysmal against lefties in 2020, though he did hit .287/.360/.573 against them in 2019.
It seems doubtful he’d want to play anywhere other than Milwaukee as a platoon player, and it’s possible he’s just ready to call it a career.
This could be another value play for the Twins as a potential late-blooming DH type. Santana is dreadful defensively and hit just .157/.298/.286 for Cleveland in 2020, but prior to that was a career .259/.343/.453 hitter with a per-162-game average of 25 home runs. He’s a career .249/.348/.456 hitter against lefties and certainly hasn’t embarrassed himself against righties (.781 OPS) either.
If Nunez isn’t the next guy to break out in his late 20s, Santana could be.
Lamb’s bat had a resurgence in his brief time with the A’s — .267/.327/.556 in 49 plate appearances — and it isn’t like he couldn’t hit in the past. Between 2016-17 he hit .248/.345/.498 in 300 games before a debilitating wrist injury basically ruined his last two-plus years with Arizona.
Lamb would give the Twins insurance at third base and provide some potential offensively, but that he hasn’t really hit since 2017 is certainly cause for concern. If the wrist checks out, he could be a nice buy-low candidate heading into his age-30 season. He checks off a few boxes the Twins are looking for and Steamer has him projected to hit a respectable .223/.325/.419.
Kendrick is just a year removed from hitting .344/.395/.572 for the Nationals, though that sagged to .275/.320/.385 in 25 games this past season. He’d give the Twins some right-handed lineup depth, but he didn’t play anywhere other than first base defensively last season, so the days of him helping at second and/or third base might be over.
He’s a career .296/.343/.447 hitter against lefties.
Frazier hit just .236/.302/.382 between the Texas Rangers and New York Mets last year, and would be nothing more than Donaldson insurance and perhaps some thump off the bench.
Moreland is a non-factor against lefties, but slashed .270/.352/.586 against righties last year. With even a decent platoon partner, he could be a real asset.
Cabrera is a jack-of-all-trades journeyman who could fill in at first and third base and provide about league-average production from the right side. In a very limited sample, he hit .314/.315/.686 against lefties last year and is a career .288/.335/.431 hitter against them.
Smoak hasn’t been good in two years and is headed into his age-34 season, but he’s a switch hitter who hit .243/.350/.470 between 2017-19 with the Blue Jays. As a minor-league signing, one could do worse.
Joyce has a lot in common with Grossman. He doesn’t hit a ton of homers — he did poke 25 in 2017 with Oakland, however — but he’s a career .244/.343/.428 hitter with terrific on-base skills. He’s the opposite of sexy, but he’ll give teams a good plate appearance and won’t cost much. If the Twins want to spend money elsewhere, he’s a nice option to fall back on.