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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Nelson Cruz

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The ageless wonder might look to finish his career in the Bronx.

MLB: Wild Card-Houston Astros at Minnesota Twins Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I love Nelson Cruz. Nelson Cruz is who David Ortiz would be if I actually liked David Ortiz, and their career trajectories mirror each other well. Cruz will turn 41 in the middle of next season, just had his second-best season by wRC+ in 2020, and if you cast doubt on it because of the 60-game schedule, well, his wRC+ was exactly one point lower in 2019. The man is amazing.

One of the ways I measure this era of baseball is starting with 2012, Mike Trout’s rookie year. He was the vanguard of this new generation of young stars, and his career really accelerated the use of a lot of advanced metrics. In the Trout Era, Cruz has hit as well by wRC+ as Miguel Cabrera, Josh Donaldson and Giancarlo Stanton, while appearing in more games than any of them and playing far better over the past two seasons despite being much older than all three of them. In fact, over the past two seasons, literally only Trout himself has been a better hitter than Cruz.

Cruz’s Statcast metrics are great, but not world-beating in the same manner as Aaron Judge. He hits the ball hard — both in average and max capacity — and he barrels the ball at good rates. Cruz has good enough plate discipline, but all of these “pretty good” qualities end up accumulating in a player such that the sum is greater than what you might expect the whole of the parts to be.

There is no team in baseball that wouldn’t benefit from Nelson Cruz’s bat. The trouble is, that’s all you get with him now. He was never a standout defender — perhaps his single most famous individual play is a defensive misplay — and although he is not the slowest DH in baseball, he’s in the bottom quartile. You’re buying one of the absolute best bats in baseball, and that’s it.

Therein lies the problem in hoping for the Yankees to land Cruz. The team has been adamant that Stanton is their full-time DH, and even if they were to trust him with more outfield time, given the injuries sustained by guys like Judge, Gary Sánchez, and even Luke Voit over the past two seasons, that DH slot in the lineup would be rotated through to keep guys as fresh as possible.

Cruz’s marketplace is even more complicated by the uncertainty around whether the NL will have a DH for this season. The Twins currently have the inside track on returning him, while the Blue Jays would also make sense as a landing spot. With no NL suitors, Cruz gets hemmed in pretty quickly, but in a DH-friendly NL, the market would be more competitive. (At this juncture, though, it seems unlikely.)

Nelson Cruz is a baseball miracle, but as we get to the Christmas season, there really is no room at the inn in the Bronx. This is likely the last contract he’ll sign in the majors, and I hope he can retire while still on this incredible offensive wave. I just hope it’s not with Toronto or another team that could make his acquisition really hurt the Yankees.