SURPRISE, Ariz. — Ah, the timeless rites of Texas Rangers spring training. The crisp morning air. The fresh cut grass. The thunks of fungos being hit and the thud of fastballs hitting catchers’ mitts.
And the briefing about a scandal involving drugs or alcohol.
The Rangers got the last unfortunate tradition out of the way Friday morning. Unfortunately, however, the investigation into Nelson Cruz’s alleged involvement with Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) will linger. Probably all spring.
Cruz, Washington pitcher Gio Gonzalez and, most notably, Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun were all implicated for their connection to South Florida-based Biogenesis and owner Anthony Bosch in a report last month in the Miami New Times. Save for a very general denial issued by a sports law attorney, Cruz had not commented about the situation since the report surfaced. He still hasn’t.
“I want to be honest,” Cruz said standing in front of the tent where last year Josh Hamilton gave his revivalress conference after another slipup with alcohol. “But this matter is under investigation by Major League Baseball and so I can’t really make any comment. As soon as it is done, I will.”
Cruz was as open as a man under investigation can be. He said he would cooperate with MLB investigators when asked to speak with them.
But the questions now are not so much about the eventual outcome, but rather: How will he do until then and how will it impact the Rangers?
The Rodriguez and Braun connections are likely to make MLB all the more diligent (read: slow) in the investigation especially since the news broke less than three weeks after Commissioner Bud Selig trumpeted tougher new drug policies. It is entirely possible the investigation will last into the season before there is resolution.
It is under this cloud Cruz must prepare to be a bigger part of the Rangers’ offense than ever before.
“It is going to be hard,” Cruz said. “Hopefully I can go through this as easily as I can. Everybody is asking about it everywhere I go. It was shocking. It really depressed me. But my family gave me support. My teammates gave me support. I’m going to work hard and get ready for the season. It’s always exciting to be at spring training.”
“I’m not too worried about the distraction,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. “We’ve dealt with our share of things over the years.”
Among those things, besides once hiding another Hamilton misstep, was the mid-March, 2010 admission by manager Ron Washington in 2010 that he used cocaine during the previous season. Washington dealt with the issue head on, addressing the team as a group and then answering every question thrown at him. It’s not stretching to say he may have followed it up with his best year as a manager.
Can Cruz thrive, too? The Rangers need him to be a more consistent part of the offense. In losing Hamilton and Michael Young the Rangers lost their RBI leaders from the last two seasons. In losing Hamilton and Mike Napoli, the Rangers lost 67 of their 200 homers from 2012. Cruz has never been higher than third on the team in RBIs. He led the team in homers in 2009 but hasn’t hit 30 or ranked higher than third on the team since.
Cruz has had other similarities to Hamilton, but not in terms you’d like to think. He’s missed almost as much time as the newest Los Angeles Angel. Hamilton averaged 123 games per season from 2009-12; Cruz 130. Cruz’s issue has been a serious of quadriceps and hamstring strains.
A year ago, when he was in Miami, Cruz worked on flexibility to avoid the disabled list, but he lost a lot of strength and nearly 20 pounds due to a bout with a stomach virus. He also spent last spring dealing with constant questions about his missed catch in Game 6 of the World Series.
He started more slowly than usual and never really got hot. He never had a month with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .900 or more for the first time as a Rangers’ regular.
He did, however, lead the team in games played and may have gained valuable experience from the grind. And he was able to put together a full offseason worth of work on both flexibility and strength.
In mid-January, it seemed the free-agent-to-be was primed to finally have that career-defining year. If he can manage to not waste energy worrying about an investigation he can’t control, it’s possible Cruz might still find himself in a pretty good place.
“I don’t worry,” he said. “I know it’s going to be good.”