Prospect Retro: Nelson Cruz
Although limited to just 25 games this year by a hamstring injury, Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers has been devastating against American League pitching, hitting .301/.390/.675 so far, for an OPS+ of 181, along with seven steals. Last year he hit .260/.332/.524 with 33 homers and 20 steals, OPS+ 117. His power/speed combination is one of the most potent in baseball. Yet at the beginning of the 2008 season, just two years ago, Cruz was regarded as a failed prospect who wasn't going to live up to his potential. Let's take a look at his history.
Nelson Cruz was originally signed by the New York Mets out of the Dominican Republic in 1998. He played in the Dominican Summer League in '98, '99, and '00, struggling at first but hitting .351 with 15 homers and 17 steals in his third trial. The Mets traded him to Oakland in August of '00, so he didn't even play in North America for New York. His debut was in the Arizona Rookie League in '01, where he hit .250/.283/.409 with a 4/29 BB/K in 88 at-bats. At this point he was considered a very raw but promising player. I did not put him in my 2002 book since space limitations in the old STATS days precluded most rookie ball players. A similar player now would get a Grade C.
Moved up to Vancouver in the Northwest League for '02, Cruz hit .276/.316/.397. He stole 12 bases in 13 attempts but was otherwise very mediocre, struggling with poor pitch recognition and posting a weak 9/58 BB/K in 214 at-bats. He had tools but was still extremely raw and would still rate as a Grade C prospect.
Promoted to Kane County in the Midwest League for 2002, Cruz hit .230/.283/.419 with 17 homer and 10 steals, but with a frightening 25/116 BB/K in 413 at-bats. The tools were still there, but he was already 22 years old and unable to command the strike zone in A-ball. I had him as a Grade C and did not put him in the 2004 book, being very skeptical about his chances.
Cruz moved up to Modesto in the Cal League for '04 and something clicked: he hit .345/.407/.582 with a 24/73 BB/K in 261 at-bats. The strikeouts were still high, but the walks were much better and he was handling breaking stuff more effectively. Promoted to Double-A Midland at midseason, he stayed hot with a .313/.377/.542 mark. He combined for 26 homers and 53 walks on the season, though he also struck out 149 times. He earned praise for his outfield defense, showing a strong throwing arm and good range. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2005 book, noting his greatly improved plate discipline but retaining just enough skepticism to warrant some caution with the grade. Oakland, perhaps sensing that his trade value was at a peak, shipped him off to Milwaukee in December for Keith Ginter.
The Brewers sent him to Double-A Huntsville to begin 2005 and he remained hot, hitting .306/.388/.577 in 68 games. Promoted to Triple-A, his production dipped a bit but remained good with a .269/.382/.490 mark. He combined to hit 27 homers, steal 19 bases, and draw 61 walks against 133 strikeouts. He also made his major league debut in Milwaukee, playing in eight games and going 1-for-5 with two walks. There was still some critique about his ability against breaking balls and he was now 26 years old, but progress was evident. I gave him another Grade B-.
Cruz hit .302/.378/.528 with 20 homers and 17 steals for Triple-A Nashville in '06, then was traded to Texas in late July. Thrust into the Rangers lineup, he hit .223/.261/.385, hitting six homers in 130 at-bats (losing rookie status) but struggling with the strike zone, with seven walks and 32 whiffs. Although not a rookie, I went ahead and put him in the 2007 book because he was interesting, giving him a Grade C+ due to plate discipline and age but writing "I think he can be a useful player if they give him enough time to settle in."
He split '07 between Oklahoma (.352/.428/.698) and Texas (.235/.287/.384) and it was starting to look like he was a Quadruple-A guy, destroying Triple-A pitching but not showing enough plate discipline to replicate that in the majors. Exposure to another year of Triple-A resulted in devastation of PCL pitchers: .342/.429/.695 with 37 homers, 24 steals, and 56 walks in 383 at-bats. But this time he carried it forward to the majors, hitting .330/.421/.609 in 31 games for the Rangers, drawing 17 walks in 115 at-bats. And as you know, he was strong last year and even better this year.
It took him some time and three seasons of Triple-A to put the finishing touches on his game, but Cruz is a tools guy who figured it out. He will always strike out and I expect that his batting average is going to jump around a lot, but the power/speed combination should stick for awhile and it is good to see him keeping his patience at reasonable levels.
SIM SCORES: Josh Willingham, Brant Brown, Chris Duncan, Jon Nunnally, Matt Mieske, Chet Laabs, Glenallen Hill, Brian Jordan, Ryan Church, and Jayson Werth.
PECOTA Comps: Sammy Sosa, Preston Wilson, Greg Vaughn, Glenn Braggs, Tom Brunansky, Paul O'Neill, Mark Whiten, Raul Mondesi, Chili Davis, and Jeffrey Hammonds. Glenallen Hill is 11th.
Hill shows up on both lists and that strikes me as a good comp; he was a toolsy guy with power and speed who didn't figure out what he was doing until his late 20s. Same thing with Brian Jordan and Mark Whiten. Mondesi had a similar tool/skill package to Cruz but was much more effective early in his career. Chili Davis and Tom Brunansky also had similar skills, but both were more effective when young and lost their speed by their late 20s whereas Cruz still has his.
There are lots of tools guys who never figure out advanced pitching, but Cruz looks like an exception.