The Mariners had a successful offseason, all things considered. They didn't make any high-impact mistakes, kept the prospect band together, and it resulted in a successful 2014, albeit one that game up a game short. Many will point to the inability to secure a quality power bat (again), the bad trade deadline, and the lack of outfield depth that burned them all year long.
For the majority of last year's winter, rumors were focused on a player the Mariners didn't get, because everyone assumed they'd get him. Jeff Sullivan felt it was inevitable, and so did most of us. It would be just so Mariners to throw a huge contract at a right-handed power bat who had injury concerns, a Biogenesis cloud, and defensive deficiencies. For that reason, we argued pretty hard against it, citing all of the above and more. It never really occurred to myself, or others, that Cruz could have signed for as little as he did. There were rumors of Cruz turning down an absurdly huge offer from the M's during the winter meetings, a rumor that proved to be false, as Bob Dutton drops this bombshell today.
The Mariners had a deal in place last winter with Cruz, then a free agent, for roughly $7.5 million in 2014 with a club option of about $9 million for 2105...before ownership backed away.
The primary concern, which all clubs shared, was how Cruz, then 33, would respond after being caught and suspended as part of the Biogenesis drug scandal.
Still, officials with several clubs say they stopped viewing Cruz as a potential target because they expected he would bridge any differences with the Mariners.
"I still don't know what happened there," an official with a rival club said. "We were told it was done. And it seemed such an obvious fit for both sides. There was risk, certainly, but..."
But it didn't happen and, finally, the Orioles offered $8 million to Cruz after spring training started even though they already had plenty of thump. Unlike the Mariners, however, they liked the risk/reward possibilities.
For as much as I was against signing Nelson Cruz initially, I was taken aback by how little he actually signed for, and my tune changed once his deal with Baltimore was announced. One year, $8 million? That's it? That's actually pretty good.
It's interesting to go back and read how the saga unfolded from an outsider's perspective -- Cruz was the butt of a lot of jokes, a representation of ghosts of Mariners past, far too many red flags for us to advocate as a good idea at any reasonable expected cost. If we would have suggested the Mariners ink Cruz to a one year, $7.5 million contract with a $9 million option for 2015 in our offseason plan, we would have been laughed out the door. There's no way we could have published that with any sincerity, it would have tainted the entire plan.
Yet, if Dutton's report is true, and there's no reason to believe it's not, we've still got some issues in the front office. If Jack Zduriencik and his team brought a signed deal to ownership, at a very affordable rate -- remember, the Mariners signed Fernando Rodney for 2 years, $14 million a week before Cruz inked a deal with Baltimore -- and then ownership, whoever that was, nixed it...that's a problem. Meddling in the front office, yet again. It's a familiar story. If you hire Jack Zduriencik to find talent within a budget and he does that at a reasonable cost...then strike it down, what does that say? Who's really in charge?
There's too much that we don't know about this situation to place any harsh criticism to an extreme degree, and that's ok. Maybe the front office has stepped in and prevented Zduriencik from making some extremely poor decisions in the past that we don't know of. Here, they nixed what would have been a good decision -- Cruz's 3.9 WAR would have, in theory, pushed the Mariners into a playoff spot after receiving 1 WAR from the rest of their outfield combined, not to mention -2.1 WAR from the DH spot. They gambled on Corey Hart (and eventually Kendrys Morales, again) instead of Nelson Cruz, and it burned them.
The Mariners could still be playing baseball if they appropriated the same funds to Nelson Cruz instead of Fernando Rodney. Even worse, they'd enter next year with a really affordable team option on Cruz, making the deal he turned down far better than the one he accepted with Baltimore. But even though that's the main narrative you'll read today (and it's a valid one), remember to concede that we never really know the full story. What if Jack Zduriencik and Kendrys Morales had a 3 year, $45 million extension worked out that ownership also balked at before this even happened? Given what we know, which is very little other than rumblings and assumptions made on tidbits that usually tell a fraction of the story...it's possible. Or not. The point is, we don't know.
That doesn't mean this news doesn't sting. It is concrete, unlike all of the other possibilities and lost transactions floating in the ether before becoming another team's steal...or disaster. I didn't like Nelson Cruz at all when I thought he was going to cost $60 million, but that sure changed when he signed for $8 million, and it changes even more when I hear an even better deal was axed by the powers that be upstairs. We have a right to be bothered by this, in the right context.
Now, the Mariners are going to possibly have another shot at Cruz, a year removed from Biogenesis problems but also a year older, coming off a career year. Plenty of the red flags still remain, and this may be the year his contract actually matches the feared offers from last winter. Like most players, Cruz is a good signing at the right place, and with the Mariners so much closer to contention than they were a year before, taking a risk is more worth it now than before, if the ownership will fund it. I learned from last year that damning a signing on a presumed cost is a mistake, and this year I still don't know what Nelson Cruz will cost. The Mariners will probably be involved again, and this time I bet the ownership doesn't have the same concerns they once did.
But the window to get a bargain out of Cruz is gone. The Mariners might have had it, and they let it go. Onto the next.