Nelson Cruz used to be a sabermetrician’s dream. Cruz was a prospect with undeniable physical tools, but for whatever reason he’d been ignored for a big league call up. Even when he was traded to Texas, the third time he’d been traded for essentially peanuts, it took three years before the Rangers would give him anything that resembled a full season in the big leagues.
Cruz hit the hell out of the baseball. He hit 33 homeruns in his first full season, but in only 515 plate appearances. He played defense that was alright, but his average defense and power made him a player worth 7.9 WAR in 2009 and 2010 combined, but in only 960 plate appearances.
Giancarlo Stanton was worth 8.0 WAR in 1005 plate appearances in 2012 and 2013 combined. Bryce Harper was worth 8.3 in 1094 plate appearances. Shin-Soo Choo was worth 7.6 in 1398 plate appearances. That’s the same Shin-Soo Choo that received a $130 million contract this offseason.
Nelson Cruz signed a contract with the Baltimore Orioles worth $8 million for only one year with some incentives. None of this is to say that contract makes Cruz a bad value on the surface. If wins above replacement cost $5 million, Cruz got a contract that represents something close to real market value. That he signed a one-year deal makes his contract even relatively team friendly for an Orioles team that is on the verge of contention. That doesn’t mean he should have been a target of the Mariners, and that he didn’t sign with the team – especially at the multiple years of high salary that had been rumored early in the offseason – may be the best thing to happen to the team this offseason.
Matthias made part of this point on Valentine’s day, explaining that Cruz’s wins shouldn’t be viewed as above or below replacement level. Replacement level isn’t his baseline. Rather, the deal should be viewed on Cruz’s marginal value over Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders, one of which Cruz figured to replace in the Mariners outfield were he to have signed with the team.
Nelson Cruz was very good for a short time, but Nelson Cruz isn’t very good anymore. Even if you adjust for injuries, Cruz has been worse than average on a rate basis for the past three years. He’s gone from an average defender to a guy whose value resides solely in his bat. Cruz provides more value to a team at designated hitter than in the field at all. And his bat, his powerful, undoubtedly Arlington-aided bat, now must have its power questioned because of Cruz’s involvement in the Biogenesis scandal.
Nelson Cruz was suspended for PEDs. While we’ve seen Melky Cabrera rebound and receive a relatively lucrative contract after his own involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, it’s also important to note that Cabrera was a good player before his implication went public. Cruz wasn’t. He hasn’t been for three years, and he’s entering his age 33 season.
A scenario may have existed where Cruz was worth $8 million over one year for the Mariners. That ship sailed when the team signed Corey Hart and traded for Logan Morrison.
While an argument could be made that the Cruz deal, only $2 million more than Hart’s deal in guaranteed money, is a better value. Hart is coming off of a season that included more knee surgeries than plate appearances, while Cruz was amid his best hitting season since 2010, when he was worth 4.9 WAR in only 108 games (aided by average or better defense). That security wouldn’t have come only at the cost of $2 million, though, but also a draft pick as Cruz had declined a qualifying offer from the Rangers earlier in the offseason. That, and any added security comes with the caveat of uncertainty caused by Cruz’s PED involvement.
At one point I thought I’d be writing a post about how stupid the Mariners were for signing Nelson Cruz to a huge contract. While his cost dropped to a point that probably represented his actual value, I’m still thankful that the Orioles saved Jack Zduriencik from perpetuating his homers-over-everything model of player acquisition.