Signing a player like Nelson Cruz is almost always a bad idea. Homerun hitters that can’t play defense and don’t avoid outs all that well are pretty much always overpaid, and the Mariners should be as aware of that fact as any team. Plus, WTF, we need a center fielder, not another corner outfielder. Franklin Gutierrez went from being expected to play more than zero games to being expected to play exactly zero games. Michael Saunders has a -5.5 UZR/150 in more than 2,000 innings out there in center, and Dustin Ackley came in at -21.3 in 414 innings last year. So it seems as though we should be spending Nintendo’s extra money on a center fielder.
The problem with that can be easily summarized by looking at a list of available free agent center fielders:Vernon Wells, Rick Ankiel, Jason Bourgeois, Tyler Colvin, Mark Kotsay (he’s still alive?), Derrick Robinson, and Andres Torres. Those seven players combined for -3.1 fWAR in 2013. One might project something like 0.0 WAR for each of them in 2014, if one were a trusted projectionist.
The Mariners’ 2014 outfield includes the aforementioned Saunders and Ackley, along with Logan Morrison or Corey Hart, and some mostly untested prospects. If the Mariners want a better-than-average center fielder, they are not going to get one in free agency at this point. Barring a trade, the Mariners will have to fill the position from within, with a bulk of the responsibility going to Ackley and Saunders. Abraham Almonte could see some playing time out there, but he’s not expected to be a good defensive center fielder. That leaves the Mariners in an uncomfortable position on the win curve, where the right pieces could put them into Wildcard conversations, but no remaining offensive pieces on the free agent market will make a big enough difference.
Cruz is not a “right piece.” Cruz is expected to be a 1.5 – 2.5 WAR player in 2014, and theoretically that should be worth $9 – $15 million. However, if signed, Cruz will come in and probably take at bats that would have gone to Ackley and/or Saunders. Both are projected to produce somewhere between 1.0 and 2.0 WAR, depending on what position they play. So while WAR is a fantastic stat for comparing players and assessing trades and free agent moves, we can’t just say that Cruz will be worth 1.5 – 2.5 WAR to the Mariners because the Mariners’ baseline is not zero. A better stat is WAA/S: Wins Above Ackley/Saunders. Cruz will be worth approximately half a win to the Mariners because of whom he replaces.
Even if money grew on trees, signing Cruz is likely to have a marginal impact on the Mariners’ win total in 2014. Since money apparently doesn’t grow on trees, the Mariners may end up paying $9 – $15 million for a player that is only marginally better than the cost-controlled options available. Not to mention that a three or four-year contract would strap the Mariners in for the long haul, making it harder to improve the outfield in the future through free agency. To me, that basically makes Cruz a very expensive insurance policy for the Mariners current outfield. Insurance policies are good, especially for a guy like Corey Hart that will likely miss some time, but insurance polices shouldn’t cost that much, and they shouldn’t make it harder to improve in the future.