ARLINGTON, Texas -- Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels knew he faced a decision that could bother him for years.
It was right before the start of the 2008 season and time for the final roster decision of the spring. Nelson Cruz and Jason Botts had competed for a spot as an outfielder off the bench for the previous six weeks, and it was difficult to choose one over the other.
Both were out of options, meaning the Rangers risked losing either on a $20,000 waiver claim -- less than half of Dez Bryant's dinner bill last week.
"We talk sometimes in this game about guys that could haunt you; 'haunters,' we call them," Daniels said. "There are a lot of guys you trade or let go that you know are going to show up in the big leagues, but they are going to be replaceable-type players. Then there are some guys that have that ability where if it clicks, you're going to be reading about this guy for a while. Nellie had that type of ability."
Now, three seasons later, the 30-year-old Cruz is an All-Star and a big reason the Rangers find themselves playing postseason baseball for the first time since Bill Clinton was in office.
Cruz has 22 homers and a career-high 78 RBIs and has become more than just a power hitter, batting .318 in 2010. He's done it despite spending three stints on the disabled list with hamstring issues. And he enters the playoffs as a critical offensive producer for the American League West champions.
But back in 2008, as the club tried to figure out what was best for that season, Botts was chosen to remain on the roster as a big, physical player who was a switch-hitter with plenty of potential. Daniels and the staff felt Botts was "more polished" at the plate.
"We had taken the temperature a little bit out there and we got the sense that Cruz had a better chance of getting through there than Botts did, though there were probably some teams that considered claiming him," Daniels said. "But at that time of year, everyone has set their rosters and it's tough to claim an out-of-options guy unless you are a rebuilding club."
So for $20,000, any team could have had a future All-Star. Of course, no one knew that's what Cruz would become. Certainly not the Rangers, who felt Cruz had the talent to help them at some point in the majors but appeared to be what some scouts call a Quad-A player. In other words, Cruz could dominate Triple-A and wow fans at batting practice, but couldn't handle major league pitching.
Daniels knew there was plenty of talent in the late-blooming Cruz. It was why he insisted Cruz be included in a trade deadline deal in 2006 that was headlined by Carlos Lee coming to Texas.
"I thought he was going to be an All-Star every year when I saw him at Triple-A," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "I played against him in Triple-A and every game we played against him, he dominated the game. He was basically Babe Ruth. I was real excited when we got him in the trade."
But after a few attempts to stick on the major league roster as the starting right fielder, Cruz was back at Triple-A and wondering what might happen next. He contemplated whether he should go to Japan to play baseball, something Botts did when it was clear he was out of chances at the major league level.
"I still thought I could get back here," Cruz said. "I knew I'd have to work and change some things and then hope to get another chance."
The biggest change was opening his batting stance.
"I told him that I wanted to try something new and he said, 'What do I have to lose?'" said Scott Servais, Rangers senior director of player development. "I told him to give it 50 or 100 at-bats, and if it wasn't working he could always go back."
What Servais wanted Cruz to do was really open up his stance to allow him to see the ball better, but also flatten his swing path.
"He was very closed up," Servais said. "He could really only get balls down and over the plate. Pitchers were exposing that. This gave him a better chance to handle more pitches."
Cruz worked on going the other way with pitches. He quit trying to hit monster homers in batting practice. And he saw results quickly.
"He wasn't chasing as many pitches out of the strike zone," Servais said. "The timing and plate discipline got better, which helped him out with the swing. Scouts were coming to me asking if this guy was for real. Our evaluators came in and said, 'This is a new guy.' By making the extreme changes, he created a new identity for himself."
About that same time, Cruz was wondering what might happen next. He was courted by a bunch of Japanese teams all that summer.
"I really thought that maybe I should do that," Cruz said. "But the Rangers wouldn't let me go."
That's because Cruz was hitting so well that Daniels and the staff thought it was time to get Cruz back up to the big leagues late in the 2008 season.
"We were in August and we had started to scuffle a little bit," Daniels said. "Our guys were down there and said that Nellie deserved another shot. We had guys go down there over the course of the previous month and say that it might have clicked. But we had a need at the time and he had earned his way back up."
Cruz made the most of it. He hit .356 with six homers and 23 RBIs and had a 1.115 OPS in 90 at-bats. The audition of sorts earned him the starting right-field job in 2009 and he never let it go.
Cruz made the All-Star team, showing off the power in the majors that he had supplied so often in the minors. Cruz had a team-high 33 home runs and a .524 slugging percentage. His speed was evident in the field and on the basepaths, where he tallied 20 steals. He had 76 RBIs in 128 games and hit .260.
And he wasn't satisfied. He knew he could hit for a better average and drive in more runs, and that was a big focus for him in the offseason and into spring training.
Despite serving three stints on the disabled list with hamstring injuries, Cruz has continued to pile up productive at-bats. He hits the ball to all fields and isn't concerned with smashing homers, though he can do that when needed. Cruz is batting .336 with runners in scoring position and has become one of the more clutch hitters on the team.
"He's become a better all-around hitter," manager Ron Washington said. "He's a tough out. He goes up there with a plan and executes it. He's the type of guy you want up in big moments."
The playoffs are full of those kinds of moments. Cruz just hopes he gets the opportunity.
"I like hitting when it matters most," Cruz said. "Who doesn't? I want to keep playing well and improving and help this team win. We all want to win. That's been our goal all along."