The first game back from a road trip usually draws plenty of media types to the Twins clubhouse before batting practice, and Tuesday was one of those days. Camera crews from three local network affiliates, along with more than a half-dozen print and digital reporters, interviewed Nelson Cruz about the shooting of fellow Dominican David Ortiz, and Jason Castro about the club’s unexpectedly dominant start.
In the midst of this, first baseman C.J. Cron, enjoying a rare day out of the lineup, walked though the clubhouse to his locker. Draped on the chair he found a red T-shirt, that night’s promotional giveaway item, celebrating the Twins’ so-called “Bomba Squad.” At that point, Cron had contributed 14 “bombas,” aka home runs, to the club’s major-league leading 125, a total that matched the 1964 club record for the most before the All-Star Break. By Thursday it was up to 132, with the break still nearly four weeks off.
Cron, 29, has quietly managed to do something difficult without fanfare or controversy. It’s hard enough to replace a popular player like Joe Mauer, whose number 7 the Twins will retire before Saturday night’s game with Kansas City. It’s even harder to upgrade the position in the process. Twins managed to do both with Cron, minus the fan outrage and awkward comparisons that often come with such transitions. Cron’s two-run homer Thursday, his ninth since May 8, gave him 15 on the season, third on the club behind Eddie Rosario (19) and Max Kepler (16).
Through 66 games, Cron’s production in most categories exceeds Mauer’s at a similar point last season. There’s a caveat, though: Mauer missed 25 games last May and June with a cervical neck strain and concussion symptoms that hastened his decision to retire. Surprisingly, Cron even has a few more homers and RBI than Mauer did in his 2009 MVP season, when back problems kept Mauer out until May 1.
Cron has hit and fielded so well that he drew more than 300,000 votes in the first round of All-Star balloting at first base, second to Luke Voit of the Yankees and about 16,000 votes ahead of last year’s starter, Jose Abreu of the White Sox. Perennial fan favorites Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols lagged farther behind. It usually takes well over 1,000,000 votes to win.
“You look at the numbers, over 300,000 people, that’s a lot of people getting on their phones and their laptops,” Cron said. “That’s the part that’s cool more than the actual All-Star part. Whether or not I go or not isn’t important. Just seeing that support has been awesome.”
That Cron was even available for the Twins to sign remains one of the head-scratching developments of the off-season. Tampa Bay designated Cron for assignment though he led the Rays with 30 homers and 74 RBI, both career highs, while mostly used as a designated hitter. Cron slugged 20 percent of the Rays’ homers and had more than twice as many as anyone else. Teams generally covet arbitration-eligible players like Cron with two years to go before free agency.
But home run power has become so ubiquitous in today’s game that most teams believe they can replace slugging as easily as a worn set of drapes. Across MLB, twenty-seven players hit at least 30 home runs last season. Twenty-seven.
Besides Cron, Tampa Bay thought it had two promising DH/first basemen on the major-league roster (Jake Bauers, a rookie they traded a few weeks after letting Cron go, and Ji-Man Choi) and two more coming in the farm system (Nathan Lowe and two-way prospect Brendan McKay). Cron was due a big raise in arbitration, another deterrent for the cash-strapped Rays; his one-year, $4.8 million deal with the Twins more than doubled his 2018 pay.
Once Mauer announced his retirement, new Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, previously a Tampa Bay coach and executive, pushed hard for Cron. Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said the club approached Tampa Bay about Cron before the Rays designated him.
“Rocco was as big an advocate for him as anyone on our staff,” Falvey said. “Our scouts liked him. The biggest question for us was, how was he going to be at first (base), because he hadn’t played it every single day at the big-league level.”
Mauer was never the same hitter after his 2013 concussion ended his days as a catcher, but he quickly proved to be an above-average defender at first base. Internally, the Twins determined his replacement had to be at least Mauer’s peer with the glove. In camp, that gave Cron the edge over former Yankee Tyler Austin, who was eventually designated for assignment and traded to the Giants. “We knew whoever was going to stand at first after Joe was going to have to fill some pretty big shoes,” Falvey said.
Cron had been a catcher until the Angels drafted him in the first round in 2011. With their help, Cron developed into a reliable first baseman. One winter, at the Angels’ minor-league complex near his home in Phoenix, he took ground balls nearly every day from Mike Gallego, the former Oakland infielder and L.A.’s director of baseball development.
“I think the major issue coming up through the minors and my first two years in the big leagues was gauging the positioning aspect of it, knowing what balls you need to go after and what balls you need to go to first on,” he said. “I think I took a little while. I wasn’t aggressive enough, I guess, going to get that ball in the hole (between first and second). The more you do it, obviously, the better you’re going to get.”
Most defensive analytics aren’t as reliable as hitting and pitching analytics. One stat, range factor, offers some basis for comparison. Last season Mauer averaged 7.71 fielding chances per game, below the league average of 8.43 and a number that declined every season after his move to first in 2014. Cron averages 7.98 chances against a league average of 8.19, a slight improvement. Better yet, if your eyes tell you Cron is a pretty good first baseman, go with that. In the fifth inning Thursday, Cron made a nice over-the-shoulder catch of a pop in short right, then cradled a hurried Micheal Pineda throw against his body to save Pineda an error.
“He has good, soft hands, and he’s very good around the bag,” Baldelli said. “He’s always worked hard at his craft and wanted to improve, and he has. He could pick some balls out of the dirt, but he wanted to continue to work at it. If he thinks he needs to spend time on something, he does. That’s what being a good, professional baseball player is all about, and that’s something he’s always brought to the table.”
In some cities, replacing an iconic figure can be traumatic for the newcomer. In 1996, when Tino Martinez took over for the sainted Don Mattingly at first base for the Yankees, fans enthusiastically booed Martinez at the home opener. This being the Yankees, there were mitigating circumstances. Mattingly hadn’t actually retired yet; he and owner George Steinbrenner had been feuding since the previous season. But fans directed their anger at the intensely-competitive Martinez, who started slowly before coming around and winning them over. By season’s end, Martinez contributed 25 homers and 117 RBI to the first of four World Series champions in five years for manager Joe Torre.
In this case, Minneapolis/St. Paul isn’t New York or Boston. And Jim Pohlad, thankfully, isn’t George Steinbrenner. Twins fans liked and appreciated Mauer but never revered him the way Yankee fans revered Mattingly. Cron eased into Mauer’s old job without the scrutiny and stress that usually accompanies such moves. Maybe that’s why he has been so good.
“I’ve seen (Mauer) around a couple of times, just mostly saying hello, how he’s been, never anything about the position,” Cron said. “That guy’s a legend here in Minnesota. I knew I wasn’t able to take that part there. Just playing my game and trying to help the team win is all I can do.”