I really, really didn't want the Mariners to sign Nelson Cruz. I've been over it extensively on the site, but the red flags stacked up too high to see a fit on the Mariners, plus his apparent demands made me have a physical reaction every name his name was suggested. Nelson Cruz became a target of massive amounts of snark, and the issue quite honestly became too black and white, based on an unfair, yet reasonable assumption that his demands were far too high to be worth signing. My conclusion was that Cruz would be begrudgingly acceptable at 2 year, $16 million, and I didn't see why he deserved much more than the 2 years, $10 million deal Johnny Gomes received. It seemed to be unrealistically low enough to support without fear of him actually signing for that little.
Except he did. He's signed with Baltimore for 1 year, $8 million, and it's a perfectly acceptable deal, and it might even be a good one. Nelson Cruz is probably going to land somewhere around a win and a half to two wins of value next year in Baltimore, and that's right at the market rate with very little risk. I would have been fine if the Mariners signed him to that deal, in fact I would have even been happy - very little relative risk, prove-it deal, and if he kills it, you slap him with the qualifying offer once again and he rejects it after proving his red flags were overstated. I hated the idea of Nelson Cruz, and yet the Orioles just made themselves a great deal, capitalizing on a player whose reputation and subsequent market snowballed to the point of irrationality. As writers, we're all probably guilty of that a little. I'm still not losing any sleep over the Mariners missing out on Nelson Cruz, and I am proud of them for holding strong and not overpaying in the winter meetings for a player with so many obvious red flags.
It wouldn't surprise me if the Mariners offered two years and Cruz elected to take the Adrian Beltre route, signing with a contender in a hitter's park, entering next year's weak free agent class as somebody more attractive. Maybe it'll work out for him. If I were him, I would have done the same thing. Safeco isn't the place to rebuild your reputation as a right-handed power hitter.
The fallout from this is simple - Nelson Cruz has now set the precedent for players to accept less money than the qualifying offer they declined. Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales can no longer hold out for $14 million over a single year - if Cruz took significantly less, their leverage is gone. Even Scott Boras has to admit it. So now's the time for the Mariners to get after Kendrys Morales, now that his cost has to have finally come back to earth. They'll probably have to structure the contract in some way that doesn't make Boras look like an idiot for rejecting the qualifying offer, but the window is wide open. At this point, Morales' only suitor remaining is probably the Pirates, and if the Mariners get out ahead of this and bring him back first, they'll have three other 1B/DH options to deal for some help in other areas. Smoak is likely gone if Morales returns.
You can't help but feel like this was the final domino to fall before Morales and Santana signed. Both are virtually out of places to go, and while I'll stop short of projecting them both to Seattle - the media did that with Cruz and look what happened - the door is open for the Mariners to make two more free agent splashes, but they'd have to add ~$20 million in payroll. That's a lot. Still, combined with a few smart trades, this offseason could start to look a whole lot different. Going back to October, Morales and Santana aren't the ideal free agent targets the Mariners should have brought in, but they put themselves into a self-imposed win-now window without being good enough to fulfill it. Most everything will still hinge on the performances of the team's young talent, but adding anywhere from 2-5 wins with Santana and Morales would put them into some sort of conversation. Maybe it's 2013 Royals, maybe it's "could surprise." For once, I wouldn't mind a little hope that isn't completely irrational.