Eight days ahead of MLB’s trade deadline, the reigning American League champions have made a big move to return to the Fall Classic.
The Rays pulled off the first blockbuster trade of the season, acquiring designated hitter Nelson Cruz in a four-player deal with the Twins. The deal bolsters a middle-of-the-pack Rays lineup into one of the league’s best, while officially signaling a sell-off by Minnesota, which has been among baseball’s most disappointing clubs.
With Boomstick heading to Florida, it’s time to issue some trade grades.
Rays acquire: DH Nelson Cruz and RHP Calvin Faucher
Twins acquire: RHP Joe Ryan and RHP Drew Strotman
Grading Tampa Bay’s side of the deal
The Rays are in the midst of a tight division battle in which four teams are in contention, so they did well to get out in front of a potential arms race and land perhaps the best available bat on the trade market. Cruz instantly becomes the best hitter in that lineup, though the move creates a bit of a logjam for a team that shuffles through a deep collection of bats on a consistent basis. Losing DH flexibility is a small price to pay for a power hitter of Cruz’s caliber, and manager Kevin Cash likely won’t mind the tradeoff.
Austin Meadows has gotten the most playing time at DH this year, but he’s spent nearly as much time in left field. A move there would shift Randy Arozarena to right field and probably mean some diminished playing time for Kevin Kiermaier and Manuel Margot. Further complications arise about how to get routine playing time for guys like Yandy Diaz, Ji-Man Choi and Brett Phillips, but this very much qualifies as a first-world problem.
Faucher, the other return in this deal, is a 25-year-old who’s put up a 7.04 ERA in 30.2 innings at Double-A this season, all in relief. The cost for Cruz is a pair of minor league arms that could have helped Tampa Bay this season. Strotman and Ryan have each spent the entire season at Triple-A, working almost exclusively as starters. The pair—ranked as Nos. 17 and 18 prospects, respectively, in Tampa Bay’s system by FanGraphs—represented the organization’s top-rated starting pitching prospects in the upper minors, which puts a dent into the club’s depth for the near future.
But for this season, Tampa Bay dealt from an area of strength to address one of relative weakness, and it’s hard to envision another contender upgrading its offense to this degree in one fell swoop like the Rays did Thursday. The Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays are likely to stock up in the coming days, and they’d be lucky to do as well as the reigning pennant winners.
Grading Minnesota’s side of the deal
Few could have predicted when Cruz re-signed with Minnesota five months ago that his Twins tenure would end like this. Minnesota came into this season with World Series aspirations but have fallen well short of the mark, and a sell-off as the trade deadline approaches was all but assured.
By all accounts, Cruz is a beloved figure within the Twins organization and respected throughout the league. Though trading him now makes all the sense in the world strategically, it’s a tough blow for both the team and Cruz himself, who described having to leave Minnesota as “heartbreaking” when speaking to reporters Thursday.
Given Cruz’s status as a pending free agent, the Twins got a strong return, particularly for a team with one of the worst starting rotations in all of baseball. Staff ace José Berríos is set to be a free agent after the 2022 season, while Michael Pineda is in his last year under contract and could also be dealt over the next week. Matt Shoemaker and J.A. Happ have been disastrous in and will both be free agents this winter, so the Twins will be in desperate need of controllable starting pitching regardless of whether or not they aim to contend in 2022.
Strotman had Tommy John surgery in 2018 and barely pitched in 2019 before losing the entire 2020 season—like all minor leaguers—due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 13 games at Triple-A this year (12 starts), the 24-year-old has a 3.39 ERA with 62 strikeouts and just three home runs allowed in 58.1 innings.
Ryan, 25, has 309 strikeouts and just 51 walks in 217 career minor league innings, with a 2.70 career ERA. A former water polo player who’s currently pitching for Team USA in the Olympics, Ryan’s used his unorthodox throwing motion to propel himself to the doorstep of a big-league promotion (and put himself in the hunt for a gold medal in the process).
That the Twins were able to recoup two nearly-big-league ready starting pitchers for two months of Nelson Cruz when they’ve long been out of contention is a win for the future of the organization. Combine that with Cruz’s comments that he’d “definitely” consider re-signing with Minnesota this offseason, and it’s just about an ideal outcome. What’s holding this grade down is that the deal had to happen in the first place.
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