Nelson Cruz Could Have Been on Your Team

Nelson Cruz compiled yet another solid campaign for a corner outfielder, hitting .263/.312/.509 with 29 home runs in 124 games. The 31-year-old Dominican has always been known for his behemoth-like raw power and featured that brute strength on Monday afternoon in a three home-run game against the Detroit Tigers, including a walk-off grand slam — the first ever in postseason play.

(Robin Ventura hit a walk-off grand slam in Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS for the New York Mets — but his teammates mobbed him after rounding first base, so he was technically only awarded a single.)

Cruz came up through the Brewers’ organization and was rated the #8 prospect in the system by Baseball America in 2005. In three separate cups of coffee in the big leagues, though, he was clearly overmatched and acquired the dreaded “Quad-A” label that plagues so many power-hitting prospects from the Pacific Coast League.

That derogatory label has since been demolished, much like Cruz does with a belt-high, 90 MPH fastball down the center of the plate.

Amidst his ascension from Quad-A player to an All-Star type player with 84 home runs over the past three seasons, it’s easy to forget that Nelson Cruz could be playing for your favorite team right now.

That’s right. Every single team in Major League Baseball had a chance to claim Cruz off waivers for a mere $20,000 in April of 2008, when Texas opted to keep outfielder Jason Botts on the 25-man roster and designate Cruz for minor league assignment.

No general manager made the call.

Everyone saw the player that hit just .223/.261/.385 in 41 games in 2006 and .235/.287/.384 in 96 games in 2007. Everyone saw the player that flailed at the outside breaking ball and could not barrel anything consistently without his arms fully extended. Opposing pitchers simply busted him inside and finished him off with a slider or curveball low-and-away.

So what changed in 2008 — the season in which he hit 44 home runs between Triple-A and the majors?

The majority of people assume Cruz’s improvements stemmed from his ability to cut down his strikeout rate from 26.1% in 2007 to 21.1% in 2008. Furthering that line of argument, he also chased more pitches out of the zone in 2007 (relative to league average) than in his breakout 2008 season.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. His SwStr% is back north of 13% in 2011 and he is once again swinging at more pitches outside the zone than the league-average player. Yet Nelson Cruz continues to be productive with a .352 wOBA.

Much like Jose Bautista and his leg kick alteration, the key to Cruz’s transformation at the plate was a mechanical adjustment. After being sent down to the minors once again in 2007, farm director Scott Servais suggested that Cruz open up his stance. Cruz obliged. This immediately allowed him to recognize pitches (particularly breaking balls) better, as well as finally cover the inside portion of the plate.

Cruz fundamentally changed as a baseball player. People inside the baseball community started to notice, including the Hanshin Tigers in Japan. Hanshin reportedly coveted Cruz in 2008 and tried to acquire him from the Rangers (link includes a bonus Lew Ford reference). Obviously, the Rangers wanted to keep the Dominican outfielder for themselves, which turned out to be a quality decision by Jon Daniels.

The simple adjustment of opening his batting stance saved Nelson Cruz’s career as a professional baseball player. Since making that change, he owns a .283/.345/.540 triple-slash line and has belted 89 doubles and 91 home runs. He became a first-time All-Star in 2009. He has even accumulated 11.8 WAR. Not bad for a Quad-A player without a discernible major league career.

So, the next time Nelson Cruz is trotting around the base path after hitting a mammoth home run into the second deck in Arlington, remember … he could be playing for your favorite team right now. For a paltry $20,000.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).