To many casual baseball fans, Nelson Cruz still isn't a household name. Never mind that he hit 33 home runs last year and posted a ridiculous .318/.374/.576 line this season- respect has been hard to come by for the 30-year-old Cruz.
This is nothing new, incidentally. Cruz has been traded three times in his career, an astonishing total for a player with a good reputation and off-the-charts power. What's more interesting still is how little he's commanded in return. Let's relive the uneven goodness, shall we?
Cruz originally signed with the New York Mets as a free agent in 1998 out of the Dominican Republic. After three years in the Dominican Summer League, the Mets traded Cruz on August 30, 2000 to the Oakland Athletics for infielder Jorge Velandia. The Mets desperately needed another backup infielder who could handle shortstop, and Velandia was certainly a desperation move- he hit a cool .000 in both his 2000 and 2001 trials with the Mets, before rallying to .190 in his third and final stint with New York in 2003.
It took Cruz even longer to find his hitting stroke. He finally turned his power tool into a skill in 2003, popping 20 home runs for Single-A Kane County, but hit just .238. Finally, in 2004, his line improved dramatically; he hit a combined .326/.390/.562 at Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A. That convinced the Milwaukee Brewers to deal their starting second baseman, Keith Ginter, to Oakland on December 16, 2004 for Cruz and pitcher Justin Lehr.
Once again, however, the booty for Cruz turned out to be unimpressive. Ginter had hit .262/.333/.479 in 2004 for Milwaukee, but slumped to .161/.234/.263 in 2005 for Oakland. He never played in the major leagues again.
Cruz, meanwhile, kept on hitting, but in the minor leagues - Milwaukee gave him just seven plate appearances during two seasons in the organization. (For reference, Brady Clark received 1,093 plate appearances during those same seasons.)
Finally, Milwaukee traded Cruz to the Texas Rangers, but the Rangers were actually after Carlos Lee, who also came to Arlington in the July 28, 2006 deal. The Brewers received Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix and minor leaguer Julian Cordero.
Of all the players dealt for Cruz, Francisco Cordero actually produced for his new team, with 60 saves and a 11.6 K/9 ratio over his season-and-a-half in Milwaukee. Mench never hit in Milwaukee the way he had in Texas, Nix disappointed as well, and Julian Cordero never climbed above Single-A.
Lee hit .322/.369/.525 in his half-season with Texas before signing an immense contract with Houston that still has two years and $37MM left on it.
Cruz struggled mightily to get his major league OPS over .700 in 2006-2007, but he absolutely murdered the ball at Triple-A. Finally, in 2008, Cruz hit .330/.421/.609 in a big-league trial, and was in the major leagues to stay. From 2008-2010, Cruz has hit .292/.360/.555 in 1,093 plate appearances- the same exact number Brady Clark received from Milwaukee while Cruz languished in the minors.
Rest assured, the next time Nelson Cruz is traded, the package coming back will be significant.