CLEVELAND — Rays officials had decided that the biggest single move they could make to improve their team for the stretch run was to add a proven and productive right-handed bat.
And they went out Thursday and did something they rarely, if ever, have done, in landing one of the top options on the market, acquiring veteran slugger Nelson Cruz from the Minnesota Twins.
The price was high, as the Rays gave up two promising advanced pitching prospects in Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman, and will take on the $5 million or so remaining on Cruz’s one-year, $13 million deal for a several-month rental.
But they are confident that the payoff will be worth it, that the 41-year-old designated hitter will provide the offensive boost they need in their bid to win the American League East and get back to the World Series, and add some invaluable leadership as well.
“We expect it to make us a much more formidable offensive group,” general manager Erik Neander said. “As good a bat as you’re going to find, as good a bat as we’ve had here.”
Cruz has been that throughout his 17-season career, hitting 436 home runs, 46th-most all-time and third among active players (Albert Pujols, 675; Miguel Cabrera, 494). Since 2014, his 279 home runs are the most in the majors.
And the seven-time All-Star is doing well again this year, hitting .294 with 19 homers, 50 RBIs and a .907 OPS overall. And against lefties he is hitting .362 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a 1.010 OPS.
“There’s guys that just naturally can hit, and he does it,’' Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s done it year after year. He’s put up Hall of Fame numbers.’'
Added Neander: “It’s an impact bat that’s been one of the best bats in baseball, and he’s continued that this year. Certainly for at least the next three months, we’re not going to worry much about his age.’'
The Rays will face some challenges in working the rest of their lineup around Cruz, who has been strictly a DH the last three seasons and played only nine games in the outfield in 2017-18.
The biggest initial impact will be Austin Meadows, the team’s top RBI man, moving to leftfield on a somewhat regular basis, after making 47 of his 84 starts at DH. That would seem to shift Randy Arozarena to rightfield more and seemingly put Brandon Lowe back primarily at second base, and maybe move Manuel Margot into a platoon role in centerfield with Kevin Kiermaier. The Rays sent down reliever Chris Mazza to make room on the 26-man roster for Cruz, who is expected to join the club Friday.
Neander said with the flexibility and athleticism of the group, the way manager Kevin Cash handles the roster and the likelihood of giving Cruz some days off against right-handers, he was not overly concerned about the impact on the group.
“Might be a day less of opportunity a week for a handful of players because of how versatile we are,” Neander said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily one player that is going to get buried.
“I think it has its benefits to keep everybody fresh. And I would fully expect them to understand it, because this moves is done 1.) they know Nelson Cruz and what he can provide and 2.) we’re trying to win. We’ve got a selfless group, we’ve got a group that gets that as much as they want to be out there for their opportunities. Very confident that that’ll all work itself out.”
What Cruz brings off the field was also significant, Neander said, enough so that the Rays “almost certainly” would not have paid as high of a price if not.
“I don’t think this move is made but for him carrying the reputation and, what we’ve gathered, in terms of the quality of the person himself,” Neander said. “The example that that can provide for younger players, the mentorship that can provide for younger players.”
Cruz said he was “happy and excited” to join the Rays. “Definitely a team that has a great chance to go back to the World Series,” he said. “Hopefully I can help to accomplish that.”
The Rays also get minor-league right-hander Calvin Faucher, a 25-year-old reliever who is 1-1, 7.04 at Double-A Wichita.
Ryan, 25, and Strotman, 24, were both pitching, and pitching well, at Triple-A Durham this season.
Ryan was 4-3, 3.63 for Durham, having risen impressively through the Rays system as a 2018 seventh-round pick. He was on leave from the team for the next few weeks to pitch for Team USA in the Olympics, and was in Tokyo Thursday when notified of the trade.
Strotman, a 2017 fourth-round pick, was 7-2, 3.39 for Durham after recovering from Tommy John surgery.
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.