Seattle Mariners fans couldn’t have asked for much more from Nelson Cruz during his first season with the team. The slugger’s home run and hit totals – plus his .302/.369/.566 slash – were well above his career averages. The Mariners were a disappointment, but Cruz turned out to be one of the best hitters in baseball.
Considering the amount of money that the Mariners have invested in Cruz – $14.25 annually – and his importance to the team’s offense, it’ll be interesting to observe the strategy that the club employs to help keep their aging star healthy in 2016 and beyond.
It’s hard to predict when Cruz – or any aging player – will begin to deteriorate and start losing significant value. The slugger hasn’t been been injury prone by any stretch – he’s played in 150 or more games during the last two seasons. He may be fine in 2016, but it’s inevitable that the 35-year-old will become more susceptible to injury as he ages and his performance will eventually decline.
Let’s assume that Cruz is able to put up similar numbers to his 2015 performance at age-35. Where would his 2015 numbers stack up against others at a similar same stage of their life? How did those players do after their banner age-35 year?
Thanks to the player index at baseball-reference.com, I was able to compile the ten best 35-year-old seasons since 2010. For comparison purposes, I’ve added in the follow-on performance for those players at age-36.
Since value and availability are the two most important factors for any player – especially an aging one – I’ve focused my comparison on each player’s wins above replacement (WAR) and games played (G). When a player appeared in 30 or fewer games or significantly declined in WAR during their follow-on year, I highlighted those numbers in yellow.
|Player||Age- 35 Year||Age-35 G||Age-35 WAR||Age-36 G||Age-36 WAR|
In 2015, Cruz played in 152 games and provided a value of 5.2 WAR. Similar numbers would be top-ten for 35-year-olds since 2010. So, it’s clear that Cruz could still have a big year in 2016. After that, the prognosis isn’t as optimistic.
The only player on the above list who delivered all-star level value at age-36 was Adrian Beltre. It’s important to note that his 143 games played during his age-36 season in 2015 were the fewest since 2011.
Of the ten players listed, only David Ortiz has gone on to provide more value after their age-35 season – he delivered 4.4 WAR and played in 137 games at 37-years-old. He’s been the most consistent 35-40 year-old in recent history.
Conversely, two players – Carlos Lee and Scott Rolen – were out of the game within two years of their outstanding age-35 seasons. As I said earlier, it’s tough to predict the future of an aging player. With that in mind, what options do the Mariners have to both maximize Cruz’s value and safeguard his availability?
The easiest way to reduce Cruz’s outfield time would be morphing him into a full-time designated hitter like the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez or Ortiz. So far, that’s been the 800-pound gorilla in the room between the team and the player.
During Cruz’s introductory press conference, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish quoted the slugger saying with a laugh that “DHing is boring.” Despite the slugger’s stated aversion to the position, most believed that former Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon would still pencil in Cruz as the team’s designated hitter about 75-percent of the time. In the end, the conventional wisdom didn’t play out as expected.
Very early in the season, it became readily apparent that McClendon intended to use the right-handed hitter in right field more than expected. When asked about it, the former skipper told MLB.com reporter Greg Johns that he wanted to rotate the designated hitter to give players a break and stated “Cruz will play his share of outfield.” By season’s end, the slugger played 82 games in right field and 70 as the team’s designated hitter.
At first blush, Cruz’s positional splits give the illusion of a near 50/50 distribution between the positions, although the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The four-time all-star was nursing a strained right quadriceps in September, which restricted him to the designated hitter role for the last 22 games of the season. Prior to the injury, Cruz was playing right field roughly 65-percent of the time. Not that far from 75-percent, but more than optimal for an aging playing viewed to have below-average range in the outfield.
The monthly splits make it easy to tell when Cruz’s body was hurting most. There was the September/October quadriceps injury that limited him strictly to the designated hitter spot, plus he suffered back spasms and a dislocated a pelvic bone in June. Both months were clearly his worst in 2015.
Cruz struggled when banged up in 2015 and he’s missed 81 games with similar leg and back problems since 2010. That’s a planning factor that GM Jerry Dipoto isn’t likely to ignore.
Some may believe that Cruz will be a better hitter when playing in the field because he finds the designated hitter spot to be “boring.” But, it’s hard to justify that belief on his career splits because he’s been a designated hitter so sparingly during his career and – like in 2015 – he may have been nursing an injury when his previous managers opted to keep him off of his feet.
Just to satisfy anyone who prefers to wade in the small-sample end of the pool, I combined the splits for his two best months in 2015 – May and July – just to see whether Cruz was productive as a designated hitter.
|As RF (May/July) ||31||133||44||7||0||10||.367||.429||.675||1.104|
|As DH (May/July)||24||107||20||3||0||6||.309||.374||.526||.900|
Cruz’s numbers were excellent regardless of position during his two hottest months. Whether the slugger is a better hitter when playing the field may be debated in some circles, but he’s proven that he’s capable of being an effective offensive weapon at designated hitter. Remember, Cruz was brought to Seattle to provide offense – not defense.
Another option for the Mariners would be to simply trade Cruz while his value is at its highest, so they can avoid having to deal with his inevitable decline in performance.
Dipoto has already made it clear that the organization needs to become more athletic to take advantage of their spacious outfield from both the offensive and defensive standpoint. Trading the team’s best hitter now would remove a fielding liability who will likely be league-average at the plate within a season or two. Makes sense, right?
Yes, but it probably won’t happen. Remember, I just finished pointing out that Cruz is defensively limited and likely to regress at the plate in the near future. Finding a trade partner willing to assume his $43 million salary and send the Mariners an acceptable amount of talent in return could be difficult.
Also, both Dipoto and team president Kevin Mather have publicly committed to competing in 2016. It’s hard to envision how their offensively-challenged club could trade away Cruz and still be considered a serious contender, unless significant follow-on deals were made.
Assuming that Seattle opts to hang on to Cruz, adding better outfielders with offensive upside would help advance Dipoto’s desire to improve athleticism and help new manager Scott Servais preserve the 11-year veteran by keeping Cruz off the field much more often.
If Dipoto succeeds at improving his outfield during this offseason, transforming “Boomstick” into a full-time designated hitter – like “A-Rod” or “Big Papi” – would help sustain Cruz’s availability, while improving the team’s outfield run prevention. That would be a winning proposition for a club that wants to contend in 2016.