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Sunday, March 6, 2011
Where does Nelson Cruz go from here?

By Jeff Caplan

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- After a magical season personally and for the Texas Rangers, what did right fielder Nelson Cruz come into spring training focusing on improving?

"The main thing is just shortening his stroke up a little bit," manager Ron Washington said. "The end result of shortening the stroke is more contact, less strikeouts, maybe a few more single and doubles."

Last season it seemed Cruz would miss out on some home runs because he would hit the ball so hard and on such a line that it would scream into the wall with an astounding thud. Even Cruz would laugh when asked over and over if anyone hits the ball harder.

Not only did Cruz hit it hard, he put together one of the great offensive seasons in all of baseball and perhaps one that has gone severely underrated, or underappreciated, especially in the shadow of Josh Hamilton's MVP season. Nelson, a classic late-bloomer who was practically given up on by the Rangers a few years ago, hit .318 last season with 22 home runs, 31 doubles and 78 RBIs in 108 games.

Had he not missed multiple stints with hamstring issues, 30 home runs and 100 RBIs would have seemed inevitable.

Cruz was Mr. Clutch last season with five extra-inning home runs, tying him with Charlie Maxwell of the 1960 Detroit Tigers for most in major league history. His three walk-off homers led the majors last season. He transferred that success to the postseason. With 13 extra-base hits in the playoffs, Cruz stands alone in that category as the all-time leader in a postseason.

His seven postseason doubles ties for the all-time lead with Hideki Matsui, Mike Lowell and Jason Werth, and his 44 total bases is tied for third-most all-time with Barry Bonds and just behind Albert Pujols (46), Troy Glaus (47) and Carlos Beltran (47).

So what does Cruz, 30, do for an encore in what will be only his third full season in the big leagues?

"With his years in this game and his growing experience, there is definitely upside," Washington said. "You might see him this year, he might hit .289, he might hit 40 bombs, he might drive in 100 runs. Average is overrated. His job is production. If he gives me average I’m fine with that, but I don’t think we really know yet exactly what all Nelson Cruz is capable of doing because he has a ton of upside."

And that could be scary.