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Free Agent Profile: Nelson Cruz

The Mariners find themselves connected to Nelson Cruz for the second offseason in a row. At what point does his cost make sense for the Mariners?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It's no secret that the Mariners are in the market for an upgrade to their offense. If there's someone out there who can swing the bat with any amount of skill, the Mariners have probably been rumored to be interested in acquiring them.

Nelson Cruz has been the center of many of those rumors for the past two years now. Last year, it seemed inevitable that Cruz would end up on the Mariners -- and he almost did. If it weren't for a last minute veto by the ownership group, Cruz would have been a Mariner for a measly $7.5 million with a $9 million option for this year. In hindsight, that deal looks pretty good. But what's past is past and now we're a whole year removed from that mess.

The rumors connecting Cruz and the Mariners have been flying fast and furious in the opening weeks of free agency. Jason Churchill of Prospect Insider tweeted this a few days ago:

Sure, that rumor is clearly unsubstantiated and pretty biased but it's clear the Mariners have a target they're after.

The Profile

Nelson Cruz is currently 34 and will turn 35 midway through the 2015 season. He led the majors in home runs this year with 40 bombs and was highly ranked in a number of other offensive categories. Many were concerned whether or not his power would play outside of the bandbox that is the Ballpark in Arlington and he answered that question emphatically. He also returned to a level of performance that hadn't been seen since 2009 and 2010 in Texas.

Much of that return to form can be attributed to Cruz's health in 2014. For only the second time in his career, Cruz was able to surpass 125 games played in 2014. Cruz's injury history includes a number of leg injuries that have sapped much of the speed he was able to show early in his career. He was also nailed in the Biogenesis scandal that rocked the majors last year.

The Projection

2015 Steamer Projection - Nelson Cruz

















Steamer projects major regression across the board for Cruz in 2015. Considering the career highs he was able to post this year at such an advanced age, this isn't a surprise. The move to Safeco Field might not hurt Cruz's power numbers as much as we might normally think. His average home run distance over the past three years is north of 400 feet and his batted ball profile shows a pretty even spray across all fields for his fly balls. Assuming his power doesn't suddenly escape him -- certainly not out of the realm of possibilities -- he should come close to his projected totals above.

The Cost

Here's the rub. Cruz is expecting a sizable contract after missing out on one last year and settling for a one-year deal. The FanGraphs crowd expects that he'll receive a three year contract worth $15 million per year, around $45 million total. MLB Trade Rumors adds an additional year onto their estimate and increases the average annual value to $17.5 million, a $70 million total. As I wrote in my examination of Victor Martinez's contract, the free agent market in baseball is driven by a "what have you done lately" approach. Cruz's career year in 2014 is certainly working in his favor. Right handed power being at a premium in the current market is also working in his favor. I'd expect Cruz will sign a contract much closer to MLB Trade Rumor's guess.

The Mariners will also have to forfeit a draft pick if they sign Cruz as he rejected the Orioles' qualifying offer back in October.

The Fit

The Mariners will have to pay a premium for marginal upgrades this offseason -- it's something we're just going to have to live with. Paying Cruz $70 million over four years seems like a pretty bad idea. But at what point does signing Cruz make sense for the Mariners? Every free agent makes sense for every team at a certain price point. For some teams, that price point is incredibly high and for some, it's incredibly low. All of us would have been thrilled to see Cruz signed for just $7.5 million last year despite the high numbers cited in the rumors swirling about. Now that we're a year removed, the Mariners find themselves at a completely different point on the win curve.

I'd love to say that a three-year contract with an AAV of $12 million would be my ideal breaking point for the Mariners but that's a pretty unrealistic number. Within the realm of possibilities, a three-year contract with an AAV of $15 million is probably the best the Mariners can do in this market. That's not a contract I'd be excited about but it would make sense based on the Mariners' context. The reality could be bleak. A contract with an AAV of over $15 million assumes that Cruz is more like a 3.0 WAR player, a mark he's surpassed only three times in his career.

All of the above assumes that Cruz will spend the majority of his time at DH for the Mariners. It stands to reason that Cruz was able to maintain his health in 2014 because the Orioles didn't play him in the field every day. If the Mariners sign Cruz to fill a hole in the outfield, then the amount I'd be comfortable paying him plummets. I don't have much confidence that Cruz would be able to keep himself healthy in the outfield and the defensive metrics show him to be pretty horrendous when he's in the field. Either way, his overall value takes a hit, either due to positional adjustment or because of his terrible fielding.

Another complicating factor is Cruz's PED suspension. With the ownership group exercising their veto power last year with regard to Cruz, many have wondered if it was a team policy to not sign players connected to PED use or was it a one-time exclusion.  Jon Morosi of Fox Sports reports that the Mariners do not have a standing policy against signing players with PED connections. This report would lead us to believe Cruz is a viable target for the Mariners.

So what we have is a player who is coming off an uncharacteristically healthy year who's looking for a huge free agent payday after posting career highs in all the significant offensive categories. The Mariners were never going to get Cruz at a bargain and, if they sign him, they have to be convinced his 2014 performance was more indicative of his future performance than his career averages. That's not a bet I'd be interested in taking. The Mariners seem to be interested in at least figuring out how much they'd have to pay for Cruz. If they do sign him, let's hope that it's not a huge overpay, just a marginal one.