Signing Nelson Cruz was a move made by the Mariners using questionable decision making. Cruz is no longer an outfielder of any quality, and while the Mariners indicated that Cruz will primarily DH, that only raises the baseline at which Cruz will have to perform at the plate to be truly average.
We realize that Cruz won’t be a 40 homer guy in all likelihood – not while playing his home games in Safeco Field. However, coming into Wednesday, it was unarguable that the Mariners had done anything but made themselves better. If Cruz is truly worth the 1.5 WAR that Steamer projects he’d be a 3.6 WAR marginal gain over the fecal matter the Mariners deployed at the position in 2014 — Kendrys Morales, Corey Hart, and Jesus Montero combined for -2.1 WAR at DH. Getting a 3.6 WAR gain in this market for only $14.5 million per season on average seems like a bargain, but to measure it that way completely ignores the principles of replacement level. Nonetheless, Cruz was an upgrade, albeit one that some (me at least) would argue was substantially too expensive (also one that could have been outpaced by an Adam Lind/John Mayberry platoon).
That said, trading Michael Saunders for J.A. Happ was simply asinine, and basically undoes all of the good done from overspending on Cruz. Steamer projects Saunders for 2.4 WAR in 2015, but also projects that he’ll have 580 plate appearances. The latter is unlikely considering Saunders career high is 553 plate appearances, but the pace set by the former isn’t completely unrealistic. In only 263 plate appearances Saunders was worth 1.9 WAR in 2014.
So Cruz in addition to Saunders was a marginal gain. Cruz without Saunders is basically a wash, and preys on a position – any outfield position that is – for which the Mariners have very little organizational depth. In essence, the Mariners have swapped something like a league average outfielder for something like a league average DH, spent $58 million, and gained J.A. Happ and his $6.7 million in salary (about $4.0 million more than Saunders will make in 2015 according to MLBTR’s arbitration estimate).
Of course, Saunders only had two more years of team control, and the Mariners will have Cruz for four. The last two years of that contract figure to be pretty ugly though, which doesn’t present much of a marginal gain, and there’s potential Cruz is something close to replacement level by then.
For Happ’s part, hes posted a career 109 xFIP- (nine percent worse than league average). He’s 32 years old, and he’s never surpassed 1.8 WAR, and has been worth 1.2 and 1.3 WAR in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Essentially the Mariners have gained one year of J.A. Happ for $62 million, which is quite an expensive price to pay for a fifth starter.