Of Nelson Cruz, a eulogy

Yeah, Neftali Feliz striking out Alex Rodriguez to win the pennant in 2010 probably remains the most memorable, iconic moment in the history of the Texas Rangers franchise. Hell, when you think about the Rangers as a whole — since the recent renaissance of winning baseball — you could probably name 10 players who generated a more significant impact than the man who hit the baseball in the above video, whom this article is about, Nelson Cruz. Off the top of my head I think about Cliff Lee and Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus, Michael Young and Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis. Texas fans have been fortunate with all the talent that’s come in and out of Arlington over the last 5 years. And while Nelson Cruz was never the greatest, nor the most popular Ranger, his stamp on the organization is engrained in memories forever.

Originally he came to the Rangers as a throw-in from the Carlos Lee trade in 2006, the one that sent outfielders Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix, and RHP Francisco Cordero to the Brewers.

It took Cruz awhile to catch on in the major leagues; until 2009 he was universally considered one of those mystical “AAAA” hitters — the ones who always tear it up in the minor leagues but never do squat while they’re at the show. Then, during his age-29 season in ’09, he came through with a respectable .260/.332/.524 (114 wRC+) triple slash line, with a career-high 33 HRs to boot. He was on his way.

In 2010, aside Josh Hamilton’s +8.4 fWAR MVP campaign, Cruz (+4.9 fWAR) was better than +1.5 wins more valuable than the third-best Ranger position player — Ian Kinsler — who checked in at +3.2 (in 102 games). So, there was a time Nellie was one of the team’s prime contributors.

The last three years, however, Cruz checks in as just the 68th most valuable outfielder in MLB (+3.9 fWAR). His 80 HRs over that time frame surely get the pundits excited and all that jazz, but his .263/.319/.489 (114 wRC+) slash line don’t inspire a ton of confidence, particularly when considering the problems he’s had staying healthy over the course of his career, along with an eroding skill set across the board. From a business perspective, the Rangers’ front office did well by not retaining him.

I’ve always liked Nelson Cruz, even with the 50-game PED suspension withstanding. He will be remembered for the greatest postseason series in Rangers’ history, and perhaps the most special grand slam and walk-off hit we’ll ever see. I mean, you never forget your first.

In six years, Cruz earned just north of $20 million for the Rangers, producing +13.2 fWAR in the process. Maybe he’s not worth the $8 million he’ll be paid by the Orioles this upcoming season. Or, maybe he’s going to be some huge bargain that will be a solid middle-of-the-order bat for them. Who knows…

But the fact that it’s been a helluva long time since he broke into the league, and with the struggles he experienced early on, it would be unfair to classify him as anything other than a success story, both for Cruz and the organization.

It’s understandable if his PED mishap stains his legacy a bit. At least from the feeling side of things. But the important stuff — what he actually did on the field — that can’t be stained. It lives on. In this current climate of free agency, players change uniforms on the regular, so this is nothing personal. I wish Nelson Cruz the best in Baltimore, and I won’t soon forget all the happy memories he supplied my sports-fan life with.

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