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Let’s talk Nelson Cruz and the trade deadline

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There’s one obvious trade target for the 2021 A’s

Minnesota Twins v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

The MLB trade deadline is approaching, set this year for July 30 so that it’s on a weekday. That leaves two weeks to go.

The Oakland A’s are contending for the fourth straight summer, and if the season ended today they’d make the playoffs in the second Wild Card spot. However, there are still several teams hot on their tail, with the Blue Jays, Mariners, Yankees, Indians, and Angels all within 5.5 games. The A’s should obviously be buyers.

Furthermore, their most pressing needs have come into sharp focus. Oakland has a strong and deep starting rotation, but they could use some help in their thin bullpen setup crew. And their lineup has been slumping for a month and could use a new bat to jumpstart them, especially in the DH or corner outfield spots.

All of that leads to a potential trade partner so perfect it’s uncanny. The Minnesota Twins were supposed to defend their 2020 division title but completely flopped instead, and they have the expiring contract of ageless All-Star slugger Nelson Cruz plus a stable of interesting relievers to choose from. And Cruz should be affordable, since as a DH he won’t have a market in the NL, and also several AL contenders are already loaded at that spot.

  • Cruz, 2021: .301/.380/.543, 18 HR, 147 wRC+, 10.3% BB, 17.6% Ks, .397 xwOBA

There are always other options out there, and the Detroit Tigers could make some sense as partners with the A’s — much like they did in 2018 when they sent Mike Fiers here. But Cruz and the Twins are far and away the most exciting fit to consider, given what a marquee superstar he is in all the exact ways the team needs.

Negotiations

What might it take to get Cruz? As a two-month rental who began the year on an eight-figure salary, Baseball Trade Values suggests he’s got some surplus value but not a ton.

The first question is whether the A’s can absorb any of his remaining money (~$4.5 million), or if they need the Twins to cover it. When they were skimping last winter, did they earmark some extra for July? And/or, do they get some return on insurance from Trevor Rosenthal never throwing a pitch? Asking for cash back from Minnesota will mean parting with better or more prospects.

The next question is, do you expand the deal to net a reliever too? I’m not enthused by Hansel Robles and neither is Statcast, and I’m not gambling on Tyler Duffey and his reduced velocity. Taylor Rogers will be too expensive. but if they could swipe southpaw Caleb Thielbar then go for it. That leaves Alex Colome, mired in an off-year that Statcast says really has been bad, but if you want to roll the dice on his superb long-term track record then presumably he’d be cheap as free to acquire with around $2 million remaining on his expiring contract.

And finally, what’s the leverage? How many other suitors actually enter the chat (Blue Jays, Rays, Mariners?), and how serious are they? Do the A’s need to overbid and part with someone high up their prospect list, or can they get away with cobbling together a couple lesser names into a quantity package? In other words, does a top name like A.J. Puk or Daulton Jefferies or Brayan Buelvas need to headline, or can it be two or three lower-profile lotto tickets?

Depending on those factors, this could go a lot of different directions. If the A’s surprisingly have money after all and want to take on the ~$7 million owed to both Cruz and Colome combined, they might only need to send one token prospect the other way. If it’s just Cruz and the A’s pay him (or even Cruz plus Robles?) then maybe it’s just two OK prospects, or one good-not-great. If they ask for cash from Minnesota to cover Cruz, that could start getting pricey in a Top 5-10 prospect kinda way, including the names in the previous paragraph.

Roster Fit

Like a glove. The A’s have perhaps the worst DH production in the AL right now, and there’s not a long-term presence entrenched in the spot if they want to upgrade on veteran Mitch Moreland. They’re also missing one of their right-handed bats in Chad Pinder, and in his place they’re auditioning a long line of minor leaguers. There’s space, on the roster and in the lineup, and of course this kind of bat would improve any club’s outlook.

In particular, Cruz is striking out less than he ever has in his career, which in turn is helping him sustainably maintain a high batting average right as the rest of the league is declining in that stat. Oakland often needs just one more hit or even a sac fly to change a game, so a slugger who makes tons of contact is perfect.

Maybe it would be even better if Cruz was lefty since the lineup leans heavily to the right, but at least the A’s can still have three lefties in there around him — 1B Olson, 2B Lowrie, LF Kemp/Brown.

Historical significance

What if it’s been the Nellie Curse this entire time?

It was nearly 17 years ago that the A’s traded Cruz to the Brewers in exchange for 51 games of Keith Ginter. Cruz was just a Double-A prospect at the time, and was tossed in late as a sweetner to get the deal done. The A’s wanted Ginter as insurance at second base behind Mark Ellis, who had missed the previous season after a spring collision with teammate Bobby Crosby. Dammit Bobby.

Fast forward a couple decades, and hindsight has not been kind for the A’s. Cruz has hit 435 career homers, made seven All-Star teams and earned five Top-10 MVP finishes, won four Silver Sluggers and two Edgar Martinez DH Awards, led his teams to a pair of World Series appearances, and once won the ALCS MVP along the way. He’s probably one of the Top 100 hitters of all time, and a couple weeks past his 41st birthday he’s still as good as ever and arguably having his best season yet.

It hasn’t been a completely perfect run. There was a PED suspension mixed in, which seems to be universally forgiven now. And he’s kinda sorta the scapegoat for his team losing the 2011 World Series, albeit on the defensive side which he doesn’t even play anymore as a DH.

But Oakland fans would surely love to know what could have been if he’d gotten to wear green-and-gold. Since Cruz’s departure, we’ve watched the A’s go to seven futile postseasons, three of which came before he even reached free agency for the first time after 2013. Now, with an eighth Oaktober trip hopefully upcoming, he’d be the perfect addition if they could finally get him here.

And if he ended up being the missing piece that led the 2021 A’s to glory, all those years later? What a story that would be.