Nelson Cruz reportedly has agreed to a four-year contract with the Seattle Mariners. The 34-year-old slugger — remember that term — led the big leagues in home runs with 40 and posted a .271/.333/.525 triple-slash for the year, greatly assisting the Baltimore Orioles to 96 wins and a division title.
The deal is worth $58 million in total, according to multiple reports. If Cruz were to come close to repeating his 2014 performance he’ll easily be worth every penny. The risk in the contract is that Cruz regresses back to his career norms — .256/.317/.471 — and declines from there as he ages over the life of the pact.
The financial portion of adding Cruz is just one factor, however, and it’s one of which the club has 100 percent control. The contract only gets in the way if they allow its presence to prevent them from adding talent to pick up any slack left by Cruz, likely on the back side of his tenure in Seattle.
While Cruz is far from a perfect fit for the Mariners’ cleanup spot, he does represent a greatly-significant upgrade to the middle of the batting order. As a right-handed hitter he does balance the lineup some and has batted No. 4 and succeeded in that role.
The key to his value is usage; Cruz is a well below-average defender in the outfield, strongly suggesting he should be the regular designated hitter. If he’s used only sparingly in the outfield, Cruz’s bat can carry his value into the 2.5-3.5 WAR range for years one and two with a reasonable floor of about 1.5 in worst-case scenarios.
Cruz’s residual value may be worth just as much as he is directly, though. With Robinson Cano certain yo man the No. 3 spot in the order, Kyle Seager no longer has to carry the torch behind the star second baseman, stretching the lineup into legitimacy.
Cruz Was Cheap
Cruz comes to Seattle on the cheap. Not in terms of dollars relative to other like hitters in their mid-30s, but because the cost to the Mariners is money and money only. The price on the trade market for equal or better options is sky high right now and may only get bigger as the market dries up over the next several weeks.
Whether it’s $58 million or $158 million, the Mariners have more money. They have more available to them now, and they’ll continue to generate ridiculous levels of revenues through various sources every single day.
What isn’t easily replaced is talent. If the club were forced to not only part with valuable young talent to acquire one of the major pieces they need this offseason but perhaps both, their window of opportunity for contention likely shortens. The fewer Taijuan Walkers, Chris Taylors and Ketel Martes remain in the organization, the fewer the resources to supplement the roster in the present and the future, either directly or as trade assets.
Yes, the club will forfeit its first-round pick, No. 19 overall, which isn’t nothing. But clubs with a plan to contend immediately can’t think too much about five years from now. The M’s have done that enough since 2009 and have done well enough to take a hit in that department for the first time since 2010. Besides, scouting director Tom McNamara and his scouting staff have done well enough after the first round or two for the class of ’15 to turn out just fine.
Flexibility, Leverage Created?
Having added Cruz, a right-handed bat who serves as a significant improvement at DH and cleanup hitter, not only failed to cost talent but perhaps his presence allows the club to expand their search criterion.
It’s been all about finding right-handed production for the better part of two calendar years. In a perfect scenario, the club can find a corner outfielder that bats right-handed, too. But the important thing simply is to find a corner outfielder, regardless of handedness. The stress on adding right-handed bats is lessened, even if just by a little bit.
It’s difficult to love a transaction that includes a four-year commitment to Cruz because he’s not all that good. Safeco Field will suppress his production some, but he should have no problem remaining productive at the plate for the first few years.
It’s worth noting that his career numbers at Safeco are useless. The ballpark has changed its dimensions and most of Cruz’s plate appearances in Seattle took place prior to such alterations so we don’t know with much certainty to what level the park impacts Cruz. Hitters generally become smarter and better at adapting to their enviornment as they age. Judging Cruz at all on his 204 plate appearances at Safeco Field is far from wise, despite the acknowledgement that the ballpark still does have a negative impact, particularly on right-handed fly ball hitters.
Cruz adds about 2-2.5 wins to the M’s roster in each of the first few years and probably 2.5-3 combined over the final two. That in and of itself isn’t worth the $58 million. But the lower range of 2.0 WAR represents a four-win improvement over what the team had at designated hitter a year ago. Yes, it’s reasonable to expect a team to find an average-ish, two-win option at DH with less financial commitment, but nothing the Mariners did in acquiring Cruz likely will get in the way of future necessities.
It’s ‘too much’ to give a one-dimensional player, but doesn’t have to be, and isn’t likely to be, any kind of future albatross. The team remains flush with cash and their revenues only will grow as the team succeeds on the field. In other words, fans shouldn’t concern themselves one bit about Cruz’s salary, nor the team’s payroll. They’ve added a player that makes them better than they are without him, however marginal the upgrade may be over a ‘replacement level’ option.
Buzz & Other Notes
While the M’s continue to be linked to veterans Torii Hunter, Alex Rios and Marlon Byrd, as well as Evan Gattis, Matt Kemp and Justin Upton, none of the above may end up the best fit. If GM Jack Zduriencik cannot find a judicious trade to acquire more of an everyday player to man right field and provide more middle-of-the-order production, the club should call an audible and seek out a table setter, instead, a topic Alex Carson and I covered in the latest episode of The Hot Stove Report. As it stands, Austin Jackson and Dustin Ackley project to bat ahead of the Cano-Cruz-Seager trio in the middle. The pair posted on-base percentages of .308 and .293 in 2014, not exactly inspiring confidence the $448 million that follow them will have enough opportunities to produce runs. One can argue it’s more important at this point to improve the top of the lineup than to spend significant resources to add another bat to the middle.
Some low-key, platoon-type possibilities for the top of the order include Chris Coghlan and even Scott Van Slyke. More everyday types could include Dexter Fowler. Carl Crawford could become a possibility for Seattle if the Los Angeles Dodgers are unable to satisfy their preference to clear a logjam in the outfield by moving Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp. Crawford is due $62.25 million over the next three years, so Crawford would need to come with cash. It’s a super long shot, but not implausible.
Fowler and Ben Zobrist may be the best players possible available that could provide some on-base production. The prices are going to be rather high, but since the M’s have acquired piece No. 1 without sacrificing trade bait, they’re still flush with options.
While many expect the M’s to be active in the starting pitching market at some stage of the offseason, don’t sleep on them as possible suitors for catchers. They were in on Russell Martin to some extent and could show interest in free agent Nick Hundley or trade possibilities in Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera. If the Rays are willing to discuss Ryan Hannigan, he, too, could be on the Mariners’ radar. Dioner Navarro isn’t likely near the top of anyone’s list, but with Martin having signed in Toronto the veteran switch-hitter may be available. Hannigan is due $7.2 million over the next two seasons with a club option for another $3.75 million. Navarro is owed $5 million in 2015.
Jason A. Churchill
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