September 18, 2009
It seems like it took forever for it to happen, but Nelson Cruz has proven himself to be a fine major league hitter over the past year. It took multiple organizations and a lot of time in the minors, but Cruz has turned himself into an important and productive member of the Rangers as they attempt to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and for just the fourth time in their nearly 50-year history. What changed for Cruz over the past year or so that turned him into the hitter many thought he could be when he was tearing apart the minors?
Nelson Ramon Cruz was signed as an undrafted free agent by the New York Mets back in 1998, and played for the organization's Dominican Summer League team for the next three seasons. After the 2000 season, he was stolen away by the Athletics in exchange for shortstop Jorge Velandia, who to this day has just about the same number of major league plate appearances as I do. Cruz' progress through the minors was very slow-he moved up a level each season after being dealt by the Mets, but he was, at that stage, all tools and no stats. He started to show more power in his age-22 season in Low-A, hitting 17 home runs in 413 at-bats, but he also hit just .230/.283/.419 overall. Cruz had a lot to work on in his game; he struck out 116 times, and walked just 25 times. Still, there was a lot to like, and despite the fact he was now 22 years old and still in A-ball, this was basically Cruz' first full season in the minors-his 2003 season had more at-bats than his 2001-2002 campaigns combined. He also had a lot of filling out left to do, as he was listed in the vicinity of 6'3" and 170 pounds by various outlets at this point-a far cry from the meatier-looking Cruz we see today.
The 2004 season was a fresh start for Cruz, as the A's promoted him to High-A and watched many of his problems disappear. Cruz would hit .345/.407/.582 in 261 at-bats for the Modesto A's, popping 11 homers and 27 doubles while walking just 24 times. He still struck out a ton-73 times in 261 at-bats was around the same rate as the year before-but at least things didn't get worse in that area with the promotion. Given that he was now 23, the A's had no problem shoving Cruz up to Double-A halfway through the year; he succeeded there as well, delivering a line of .313/.377/.542. The strikeouts stuck with him once again, but so did the walks and the power. He had a brief trial in Triple-A before year's end, accumulating 13 at-bats and delivering a few extra-base hits. You can attribute Cruz' success to his improved approach at the plate; his pitch recognition improved-he learned to lay off the high fastball that had given him trouble in the past-and he began to use the entire field by going with the pitch and hitting it the other way.
So all of a sudden, Cruz was a legitimate prospect, and his tools had finally turned out a performance on the field. The A's, either unsure of Cruz' true potential or desperate for some middle-infield help, traded him and Justin Lehr to the Brewers that offseason for Keith Ginter. Ginter would spend more time in the minors for the A's than he did helping them at the big-league level, while Cruz would go on to dominate in the minors once again. Baseball America ranked Cruz the 14th-best prospect in the Brewers' organization heading into the 2005 season, but warned that despite his breakout year there was still some work to be done refining his swing: "Cruz still has a tendency to overswing. He tries to hit every ball further than the last, leaving him slow out of the box." There is such a thing as being too in love with your own power, and Cruz would need to learn to harness a more natural swing if he wanted to succeed at higher levels. Baseball Prospectus 2005 expanded on this, saying, "Cruz is a power player in every sense, trying to hammer everything at the plate while flashing a great arm in the field." We also warned he was a bit old for the level, but we've already covered that a bit here.
The 2005 season would show that the Brewers picked up the better end of the deal, as Cruz continued to hit, posting a line of .306/.388/.577 in Double-A to go along with his strong defensive abilities. Milwaukee put him in Triple-A for the second half of the year, where Cruz struggled relative to Double-A, but overall was solid; a few more points of batting average would make that .269/.382/490 line look a lot different. Baseball America moved Cruz up to eighth overall in their organizational rankings, but stated that despite his "well above-average raw power" and "aggressive swing, strong wrists…quick hands" and "violent bat speed," he suffered from the holes in his swing caused by his aggressive nature at the plate. Pitchers could get him with off-speed stuff, a problem that can only get worse as you progress towards the majors and smarter, more talented opposition. Cruz biggest issue besides that was the Brewers' depth chart: Geoff Jenkins and Carlos Lee were still around, and Corey Hart was ahead of him as well.
Cruz hit well at Triple-A Nashville in '06, hitting for both average and power while displaying more than enough patience, but he was traded-once again-to another organization. Now he was back in the AL West, this time with the Rangers, as part of the mega-deal that brought Francisco Cordero to the Brewers and united Geoff Jenkins and Kevin Mench into the briefly usable Menchkins platoon. Texas put Cruz in the majors for his next 130 at-bats, but the results were not pretty: .223/.261/.385 with 32 punchouts and seven walks, though he did smack six homers despite his struggle with making contact.
So, the Rangers had a player who still had not shown the discipline necessary to take on major league pitchers. Yes, Cruz drew some walks, but he was an aggressive hacker that would chase a high fastball or be completely fooled by off-speed stuff. He would split time between Triple-A and the majors in 2007, destroying Triple-A (.352/.428/.698) but failing once again in the majors (.235/.287/.384). He was valuable with the glove during his short time in the majors, but not in a way that made up for that bat in a corner outfield spot. There was some worry at this point as to whether or not Cruz' bat could last in the majors; as Baseball Prospectus 2008 put it, "Cruz is just too much of a hacker and a chaser at the plate, and once big-league pitchers realized that, they stopped giving him anything to hit."
Cruz would begin 2008 in Triple-A, and put up eerily similar numbers to his 2007 campaign. The Rangers, seeing that he had nothing left to learn in Triple-A and realizing that he would need to figure out major league pitching in the majors if he were to ever be worth something to them, brought him up for his last 115 at-bats, and got a pleasant surprise. For the first time, Cruz' patience carried over from the minors to the majors, as he walked in 12.9 percent of his plate appearances. Pitchers did not throw him nearly as many first-pitch strikes as they used to, in the hopes that Cruz would chase, but instead he made them pay with walks and his impressive power; this may have contributed to his contact rate going up on the pitches he did swing at. Cruz finished the year hitting .330/.421/.609 at the major league level, and was in the plans for the Rangers in 2009 because of it.
Baseball Prospectus 2009 pointed out that Cruz compared well to Sammy Sosa at this point-the version that saw an uptick in walks and patience and started to hit 30-40 homers a year. Cruz was forecasted by PECOTA to hit .261/.336/.486 as a weighted mean, but his 75th- and 90th-percentile projections better reflected his potential based off of his minor league numbers and his more recent major league bit (.275/.353/.516 and .294/.377/.561). Cruz has hit .266/.340/.543, which is somewhat expected, given his 2008 numbers. While his power is for real, he posted a .388 BABIP with an uncharacteristic liner rate in '08; both the liner rate and BABIP have fallen back to expectations this season, and his average dropped because of it as well. He's still drawing walks and keeping his strikeouts around the same rate though, and has even picked up a bit more on his P/PA (from 3.7 to 3.9), and survived despite pitchers coming at him with first-pitch strikes yet again. His bat isn't the only thing he has going for him though. He's swiped 19 bases and been caught just four times, and he also uses that speed along with his arm in the outfield. He's been one of the most valuable right fielders in the majors in his first full season in the bigs.
Going forward, Cruz is an athletic and toolsy right fielder who still has excellent speed and power at the end of his peak years. He hasn't used up a lot of his service time thanks to his struggles at the big-league level in the past, so the Rangers have themselves an inexpensive and very productive player for the time being; by the time he's expensive and needs a long-term deal, the Rangers can probably just let him walk and take the picks. In the meantime, his athleticism should keep him productive for a bit; PECOTA didn't expect a downswing in his performance until he's reached his age-33 season in 2014, so the future looks bright for a continuing relationship between Texas and Cruz.
Cruz' story teaches analysts a very good lesson about patience and player development. He took some time to get moving in the minor leagues, but thanks to the raw ability he had displayed, people had faith he'd become something worthwhile. While he continued to develop into a scary hitter during his time in the minors, his struggles in the majors deterred some from becoming too attached to the belief that he could succeed there. He had an obvious problem, though, and one that could be solved-he had shown progress in fixing it before, but had not quite adapted as much as he needed to in the majors. The Rangers may have brought him up because he was on his fourth organization and had nowhere else to go except the majors, or they could have brought him up because they truly thought he could conquer his faults and produce, but either way, there's something for some organizations to learn from the patience displayed with Cruz.