The Tampa Bay Rays are acquiring designated hitter Nelson Cruz from the Minnesota Twins. The deal signals the beginning of major trades ahead of MLB's July 30 trade deadline.
Minnesota begins a July sell-off by getting two pitching prospects back from the loaded Rays system.
An ageless wonder, Cruz remains one of the league’s best hitters at age 41. He re-signed with the Twins on a 1-year, $13 million deal over the winter thinking he would help them make another postseason run.
Instead, Minnesota’s season ran aground quickly in 2021. An abject disaster of a spring made Cruz’s ever-productive bat too appealing an asset to hold onto. The beloved slugger is viewed as an excellent mentor for younger players in addition to his hitting prowess. The Twins could still be active dealing more talent to contenders — Michael Pineda and Andrelton Simmons are in the final years of their contracts, and rumors have also swirled around young stars José Berríos and Byron Buxton.
Rays take first swing in AL East race
The defending AL champion Rays currently hold the league's top wild card spot, and are just a game back of the Boston Red Sox entering Thursday night's games. Per usual, they are succeeding on one of MLB's smallest budgets. Cruz — whose expiring contract helped make him an option for Tampa — will immediately be the team's highest-paid player. MLB.com's Mark Feinsand reports the Rays took on the rest of Cruz's salary, about $5 million.
He will provide a lift to an offense that strikes out more than any in baseball, and is just hovering around league average. For his part, Cruz is running the lowest strikeout rate of his career, and has been especially productive since the start of June, slashing .321/.406/.582 in the span that has coincided with MLB's crackdown on pitchers using sticky substances.
The lineup upgrade will come with some playing time shuffling. Austin Meadows, who has taken the lion's share of the DH plate appearances for the Rays, will likely return to a more regular corner outfield role. Manuel Margot (who's been 2 percent worse than league average as a hitter by OPS+ in 2021) and center field defensive wizard Kevin Kiermaier (18 percent worse than league average) are most likely to feel the squeeze.
Does this change the AL East odds?
There is plenty of time left before the trade deadline, but the Rays' move to supplement their offense is notable as the Red Sox try to hold on to the division lead while getting nearly no offensive production from certain key lineup spots, most notably first base.
Boston figures to get a major boost without making a move via the return of ace Chris Sale, but Tampa Bay's +140 odds of winning the AL East at BetMGM figure to change as Cruz's ultra-reliable production gets factored in.
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