The Red Sox fought one battle with American League East implications vs. the Yankees on Thursday night. But a half hour before even taking the field, they watched the Rays open another front in the war for divisional supremacy.
It's not often that the trade of a 41-year-old can send seismic shocks across baseball, but Nelson Cruz is no ordinary 41-year-old, and those resourceful Rays are no ordinary organization.
They acquired the slugging DH from the Twins in a blockbuster that puts the best pure bat on the market in the middle of Tampa's scrappy lineup. The Rays haven't lacked for runs, beginning the night fifth in the AL in that department, but they're doing it with sleight of hand, ranking middle of the pack in every other offensive category except walks (3rd) and steals (2nd).
Cruz changes that equation and addresses Tampa's biggest weakness, which was an inability to hit left-handed pitching. Between the Red Sox (Eduardo Rodriguez, maybe Chris Sale), White Sox (Carlos Rodon, Dallas Keuchel), and Astros (Framber Valdez), the Rays could see no shortage of quality left-handers in the postseason, and that's what this deal was about.
Meanwhile, it makes the task of holding onto the division that much tougher for the Red Sox. Manager Alex Cora was all enthusiasm after Thursday's pulsating 5-4 comeback win over the Yankees in 10 innings kept the Sox a game ahead of the Rays, who pulled off their own comeback to beat the Indians. But there was a hint of gloom in his voice when asked about the Cruz trade.
"I mean, we expected that," he said. "Teams are going to try to get better. Nelson Cruz is one of the best hitters in the big leagues, so they improved."
Now the question is how Chaim Bloom responds. The Red Sox remain in the market for a left-handed bat of their own to play at first base, and they'd probably be wise to target relievers who match up well with Tampa and Houston. In the case of the Rays, that means another lefty to neutralize Brandon Lowe, Austin Meadows and Joey Wendle -- even with Cruz. When it comes to the Astros, good luck, because that's the best offense in baseball and they hit pretty much everything.
Now the Red Sox must deal with Cruz, too. The ageless slugger is an offseason workout partner of Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez, who has admitted picking his brain over playing forever. Cruz is also a long-time favorite of former Red Sox DH David Ortiz, who begged general manager Ben Cherington to sign his Dominican countryman after the 2013 season.
Cruz instead went to Baltimore, slammed 40 homers, and kickstarted the renaissance that has made him a borderline Hall of Famer. His 279 homers since 2014 are the most in baseball and 29 more than second-place Mike Trout, and it's not like he's slowing down.
He's hitting .294 with 19 homers and 50 RBIs and just made his seventh All-Star team. He's also considered an A-plus clubhouse influence, and did we mention that he murders the Red Sox, particularly in Fenway Park, where he's a lifetime .343 hitter with 11 homers in 43 games?
Bloom is not wired to overreact to another team's moves, not after all those years in Tampa, where the Rays knew there was no point gnashing their teeth over the massive expenditures of the Yankees or Red Sox.
The Rays have put the Red Sox in an unexpected position, however, by assuming roughly $5 million in Cruz's prorated salary while Boston has yet to demonstrate it will spend beyond the $210 luxury tax threshold, which it basically abuts. Tampa opened the season with only $67 million committed to its roster, but imagine falling short in the postseason because Tampa spent and the big-market Red Sox didn't want to extend themselves financially for, say, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
That'd be a tough way to lose a war, and the Rays just fired one hell of a salvo.