Cruz-ing to Another World Series: Rangers-Tigers ALCS Game 5 Preview and Open Thread

As the trade deadline approached in July 2006, it seemed inevitable that Jon Daniels would make a bold move to bolster a mediocre offense in his first season as general manager.

He targeted the best hitter on the market -- Carlos Lee, an established 30-HR, 100-RBI slugger. And Lee was well on his way to another such season at the deadline, clubbing 28 homers and driving in 81 runs in his second year with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Of course, had Daniels not dealt Alfonso Soriano, who would mash 46 HR with 41 SB and 95 RBI in '06, to the Washington Nationals seven months earlier for Armando Galarraga, Terrmel Sledge and Brad Wilkerson, adding Lee wouldn't have made sense.

The price for Lee, whose contract, like Soriano's, expired at the end of that year, was high: closer Francisco Cordero, who was slumping at the time but had saved 49 games for Texas in '04 and 37 in '05; Kevin Mench, an high-energy player who hit 26 HR in '04 and 25 more in '05; Laynce Nix, a 25-year-old with the potential to be an everyday center fielder; and Julian Cordero, a 22-year-old left-handed prospect.

But Daniels didn't want to be left empty handed if Lee bolted somewhere else in the offseason, so he convinced former Rangers GM Doug Melvin to include 25-year-old Nelson Cruz, who was hitting .302 with 20 HR, 73 RBI and 17 SB for Milwaukee's Triple-A club.

Coco Cordero was productive in his one and a half seasons with the Brewers, but he was gone by the time they made it to the playoffs in 2008, having inked a four-year, $46 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds at the end of '07. Mench would hit only nine more career homers after the trade, while Nix became a solid fourth outfielder with the Reds and Nationals after playing in only 30 games in two and a half seasons with the Brewers. And Julian Cordero would never find his way to the big leagues.

Although Lee hit .322 for Texas with nine home runs and 32 RBI, he wasn't the offensive juggernaut Daniels had hoped for, so he watched as Lee signed a six-year, $100 million deal with the Houston Astros in the offseason. Daniels used the compensation pick from Houston wisely, drafting Irving right-hander Blake Beavan, who he would later use in a trade to acquire another Lee -- Cliff.

Cruz seemed on a Chris Davis-like career path, as he continued to post great numbers in the minor leagues while struggling to translate that success to the majors. Things got so bad, in fact, that Daniels put Cruz on waivers before the 2008 season. Anyone could have had him, but no organization saw him as worthy of a roster spot, much less the future All-Star and postseason hero he'd become. So he stayed here instead and became a Rangers legend.

It wasn't as exciting as his Game 2 walk-off grand slam, and it wasn't as important as his Game 1 blast off Justin Verlander, which proved to be the game winner. But last night's three-run shot -- which, incidentally, completed the postseason home-run cycle for Cruz -- cemented his place in the Rangers Hall of Fame no matter what happens in his career from this point on.

I've watched the multiple-angle montage of Cruz's homer at least two dozen times. And I don't see myself getting tired of it anytime soon.

Cruz is now hitting .281 with 10 HR and 20 RBI in just 89 postseason at-bats, including .353-6-14 in 34 ALCS at-bats. He's officially a baseball deity in North Texas.

Over the past couple years, I've written a lot of words in defense of Jon Daniels because I've felt like he's become one of the top GMs in the game. Now I'm convinced he's the best.

The Cruz acquisition is merely one in a lengthy list of franchise-changing moves by JD. Look at this club and tell me how many players you can find that haven't been touched by Daniels. Sure, Michael Young and Ian Kinsler were here before Daniels, but he signed both to contract extensions and refused to deal Young for peanuts when he asked to be traded two separate times. Feldman was already here too, but, once again, Daniels signed him to an extension. And the decision to put C.J. Wilson into the rotation was a move that wouldn't have happened without Daniels.

Everyone else has been either drafted, traded for or signed as a free agent by Daniels, which, far as I'm concerned, is more than enough to forgive JD for the Soriano, Adrian Gonzalez and John Danks trades. And say with confidence that he currently holds the title as best GM in baseball.

Disagree? Maybe this highlight clip of Napoli from last night will change your mind.

This afternoon, it's a rerun of C.J. Wilson v. Justin Verlander, whose name, face and stats dominated last night's Fox broadcast. Just like Saturday (and seemingly every game this series), there's rain in the forecast again, which could result in a third time this postseason that Verlander has had one of his starts affected by rain. Another delay would be a huge benefit to Texas, even if Verlander returns afterward, but here's hoping Game 5 concludes without pausing for weather.

After all, despite Fox painting Verlander as the reincarnation of Bob Gibson, he's no Superman, as I mentioned in my series preview. That gig already belongs to Señor Boomstick.

One more win. Just one more win.

Quick Hits

-- Unless Jim Leyland is bluffing, he claims Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde aren't available today. To me, that neutralizes Verlander on the mound. And it makes the Rangers bullpen even more valuable. Even though Wash said he'd like to avoid using Ogando, it's all hands on deck for Texas with the potential to win the pennant.

-- Obviously, there's a lot of talk out there about Wash's decision to walk Miguel Cabrera. As I said in yesterday's thread, I wouldn't have done it. However, the bottom line is Mike Adams stepped up, as did Nellie with a terrific throw and Napoli holding on after Cabrera tried to knock the ball free. No damage done, and not nearly as confusing as Wash's decision to keep Colby Lewis on the mound in Game 3.

-- For those wondering about Cruz's contract status, he's under club control for two more arbitration years. He'll be 33 when he's eligible to hit free agency, so there's need to ink him to a costly, long-term contract. Napoli, who turns 30 at the end of the month, has one more year of arbitration before he reaches free agency at the end of next season. Unlike Cruz, I would hope there's a big push to get him signed to a long-term deal after the World Series.

-- I'm still lost as to why Mitch Moreland didn't pinch hit for Yorvit Torrealba in last night's game, both with two outs and a runner on first in the top of the ninth and again leading off the 10th. But he's in the lineup tonight, with Torrealba benched and Young back at DH.

-- I've already made my case for a new lineup, but I feel compelled to adjust given Beltre's gimpiness and Cruz's performance.

1. Kinsler 2. Young 3. Napoli 4. Cruz 5. Hamilton 6. Beltre 7. Murphy 8. Andrus 9. Moreland

Wash continues to be stubborn with the lineup. Perhaps he'll change his mind in the World Series.

-- I think I'm still in shock that Leyland intentionally walked Beltre, who anyone can see is not himself, to get to Nappy, who hit .429 in September and .372 with runners in scoring position during the season. That's much more confusing than Wash's decision to walk Cabrera.

-- Once they dispose of Detroit, Texas will be the first AL team with back-to-back World Series appearances since the Yankees from 1998 to 2001.

-- Napoli is the first player since both leagues began recording caught stealings in 1951 to throw out a runner attempting to steal and drive in the game-winning run in the same postseason game, both in extra innings, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

-- Cruz trails only Carlos Beltran (11) with the most homers in the first 24 games of his postseason career. Also, I mentioned earlier that he hit for the homerun cycle in his postseason career. He's just the 14th player in history to do so.

See y'all in the comments!

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten