Watching the Texas Rangers batting order stroll up to the plate one by one is akin to seeing the American Gladiators line up side by side for the Gauntlet challenge. There's such a mass of muscle, with each hitter standing tall at the plate, ready to send another pitch deep into the seats. It becomes difficult to tell one batter from the next. Josh Hamilton (OF, TEX), Hank Blalock (1B/3B, TEX), Chris Davis (1B/3B, TEX) are all imposing. But lodged halfway into the lineup is Nelson Cruz (OF, TEX), a man who represents the term "Quad-A ballplayer" as well as anyone.
Last season, Cruz finished second in Triple-A with 37 home runs (Dallas McPherson [3B, FA], had 42) and second in OPS with a 1.123 mark (Kit Pellow had a 1.189 figure). It hadn't been the first time that Cruz had rocked Triple-A, but what became apparent last season is that Cruz finally appeared to make a clean transition to the Show. He had struggled mightily in his 2006 and 2007 call-ups, posting batting averages of .223 and .235, respectively, and hitting just 15 home runs in 437 combined at-bats.
In 2008, though, Cruz hit .330, and while he laced only seven jacks in 115 at-bats, his 1.030 OPS signaled a possible changing tide in the way he approached big league pitchers.
With a full-time spot in right field for the 2009 season, Cruz became one of the hottest "sleeper" picks in fantasy drafts this spring. The question is, like the one I posed about Alexei Ramirez (2B/SS, CHW) last week, will one really outstanding season become a harbinger for things to come? Time to find out.
2008 stats: .330 AVG, 19 runs, 7 home runs, 26 RBIs, 3 steals, 1.030 OPS
There are two obvious points one can make upon looking at Cruz's player profile. First, he's already 28, in the midst of his prime. Second, he's bashed the ball wherever he's played. Beginning with a 20 HR/85 RBI season in the Midwest League in 2003 and continuing to Triple-A last season, Cruz has belted at least 20 homers in five of his last six minor league seasons.
There was an 11-homer stop with Class A-Advanced Modesto when he also racked up 27 doubles in just 261 at-bats. In 2005, Cruz mashed 16 homers and 19 doubles in 286 at-bats to post a .965 OPS.
Cruz hit 20 homers in Triple-A Nashville in 2006, and his .302 batting average and .378 on-base percentage suggested a player successfully blending power production with on-base presence. But he clearly wasn't ready for the majors, hitting .223 and striking out 32 times versus just seven walks in 138 plate appearances. That 0.22 BB/K rate reeked and it became his low mark of the last three years.
What also hurt Cruz in that 2006 stint was his 45.9 ground ball percentage. Yes, 130 at-bats is a small size, but putting the ball on the ground as much as he did negated what had been his most prevalent hitting characteristic: his star-level power.
An even more successful run in Triple-A Oklahoma in 2007, where he produced an utterly ridiculous .352/.428/1.125 hitting line in 187 plate appearances, gave him his first full-time role in the majors. Cruz started 79 games for Texas that season, almost all of which came in right field, but his overall numbers were nearly just as disappointing as in '06. Although he cut his ground ball percentage to 37.6, thus increasing his line drive percentage four points to 16.1 and his fly ball percentage 4.5 points to 46.3, he had just nine homers and 15 doubles to show for 307 at-bats.
Part of the problem was his inability to hit southpaws, against whom he batted .212 with a .582 OPS in 108 plate appearances. He hit .245 with a .714 OPS (slugging 100 points higher in the process) against righties, but a .312 BABip against right-handers showed a whole lot of luck just to get to a .245 batting average.
Except for a stretch of 10 games in which he recorded at least one hit, including a seven-game hit streak, and another nine-game stretch where he produced four multiple-hit games, Cruz didn't provide any noticeable burst of offensive firepower. His strikeout percentage grew to 28.3, and his BB/K rate remained far too low, at 0.24.
With an even more magnificent Triple-A season last year (.342 AVG, .429 OBP, 1.123 OPS, 37 HR, 99 RBIs), it seemed it could have been make-or-break time for Cruz and his major league career. With the .330 average and 1.030 OPS, fantasy owners were wondering what sort of damage he would do with a full season of playing time.
One look at last year's splits indicates a growing ability to hit righties. Remember that .245 average against them in '07? Cruz hit .298 last year with a .385 on-base percentage in 96 plate appearances. He even drew 11 walks to counter his 20 strikeouts. In fact, Cruz drew 17 walks overall against 28 strikeouts, a phenomenal improvement even if it comes with a relatively low amount of plate appearances.
There are a few stats to hasten fantasy owners' excitement, though. Cruz's .388 Batting Average on Balls in Play is very luck-induced, meaning that his batting average will probably take a severe dip this season. His fly ball percentage fell to 37.9, and 21.2 percent of his flies became homers, a very high percentage that is nearly impossible to sustain.
Cruz clearly has to work on his ability to hit with two strikes, as well. He went just 12-for-53 (.226) in two-strike situations, although once again a small sample size can be attributed to that stat. You can go back to his BB/K rate to show that he had a more disciplined eye at the plate, so his two-strike hitting should improve.
Another encouraging part of his game last year was a longer sustained run of peak production. In a 17-game stretch from Aug. 31 to Sept. 19, Cruz hit .400 with a .717 slugging percentage in 60 at-bats. Streaks like that can do wonders for a player's confidence, especially in the times when a hitter struggles and searches for some sort of inspiration.
Even though Cruz batted primarily seventh in '08, he opened the season on Monday in the cleanup spot. Assuming he stays somewhere between fourth and sixth full-time, Cruz should have a fantastic opportunity to drive in 100 runs. Monday's Rangers lineup provided another clear sign of manager Ron Washington's confidence in Cruz. Right-handed hitter Marlon Byrd (OF, TEX) filled in left field for lefty-hitting David Murphy (OF, TEX) against b(SP, CLE). That could mean Washington is likely to leave Cruz alone in right field, allowing him to try to capitalize on last season's success.
You should always try to make room for a player who has a great shot at 100 RBIs, but temper expectations a bit for Cruz this year. A .300 batting average is realistic only if Cruz shows the same discerning eye at the plate that he showed last year, which is unlikely considering the massive bump in plate appearances he'll receive this year. Thirty home runs might seem like a certainty, and they will become more realistic if Cruz can avoid a prolonged slump that could influence Washington to pull him from the everyday lineup. Don't be disappointed with 24-27 home runs, though. Rangers Ballpark at Arlington will help him drive homers, but a major correction in his hitting luck -- both BABIP and HR/FB percentage -- is in order.
Cruz has been a fantastic minor league hitter throughout his career (his career Triple-A hitting line is .316/.402/1.004), so fantasy owners should feel confident that Cruz will have some level of success hitting in the majors. Just don't assume a Ryan Ludwick-like (OF, STL) rise from obscurity.
Kyle likes to deconstruct players, but he wants to know what you like as well. If you have any questions, comments or suggestion for future players to deconstruct, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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