Last year, we spent the majority of the offseason talking about Nelson Cruz. At first, he was a terrible idea as a primary addition to a team too far away, at a cost somewhere around the amount he just signed for, if not more. Then, the Mariners signed Robinson Cano, and signing Cruz started to seem a little more reasonable. When he finally inked a 1 year, $8 million deal with Baltimore, it seemed like the Mariners might have actually missed out on a bargain.
Then, he went and hit 40 home runs, dampening concerns about hitting outside of Arlington, remnants of PED usage, and his former injury history. He only dampened them and didn't remove them because those doesn't all disappear with just a year's time, but it's safe to say that the original fears of Nelson Cruz exploding the second he left Texas were at least somewhat overblown. The health issue has been significantly subsided, at the very least.
Other red flags are still there, but are fading in hue. Cruz's power is still extremely legit, and along with a surge in power came a reduced strikeout rate (23.9% to 20.6%), and a slight increase in walks. He spent over half his time at DH (89 games), and the rest were in the outfield, where Cruz graded out with his best metrics in years.
Cruz should step in as the primary DH, though something tells me the M's aren't done buying bats yet, which would force him into the outfield from time to time. He's very likely going to be bad there, but he's likely got enough leg juice to not go full-Ibanez for the next year or two.
That's what this deal is all about, really. Four years for Nelson Cruz, finishing up at age 38, isn't going to look good in the second half. But the Mariners came up one game shy in 2014, a year in which they got a combined -2.1 WAR from their designated hitters. This makes the Mariners better for 2015, even if Cruz does start to slide immediately. With Hisashi Iwakuma set to become a free agent in a year's time, Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez continuing to age, and other players like Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders entering the theoretical best years of their prime, the window is now. That's why Cruz is here. That's why this deal, despite being a player this blog would normally complain about, makes some sense.
The Mariners have made good on their promises to spend more money, and deserve credit for it. The extension of Kyle Seager and this Nelson Cruz signing represent some no-joke additions to current and future payroll, and the winter meetings haven't even started. The Mariners, by all accounts, seem ready to play and spend with the big boys. As long as they're not done adding with Cruz, they'll be ready to stand with them.
In isolation, Cruz doesn't look great. He's likely to only provide fair value in return for a year, maybe two -- before he starts serious decline. Maybe he keeps it together into his late 30s, like Marlon Byrd, but betting on that happening is isn't wise. Decline comes for everyone, and power hitters who strike out a lot usually start to crater before Cruz's current age, let alone his late 30s. Cruz did enough last year to quell some of those aging fears, but there is a cliff. Where is it? We don't know. All we can do is enjoy the ride and hope the wheels don't fall off in the middle of the first lap around.
The fear here is that the Mariners think Cruz is enough to get them over the top, and it's not enough. Because there's still legitimate fear Cruz's decline could begin immediately instead of in two years, they have to keep adding. Sitting around and waiting for the cheapest of Ervin Santana, Brandon McCarthy, and Francisco Liriano seems prudent, especially now that they've already lost a first round pick by signing Cruz. Future QO-attached additions won't hurt as much as they would otherwise, or will next year. The pitching depth still needs to be addressed, especially because there's' the sneaking suspicion that they're not done adding bats and may use some of it to get more.
That's another reason to like this addition. The Mariners still hold every one of their trade chips, free to grab another big-time player. Free to take this whole "all-in" thing another step further. That package is unclear, but there's certainly still room for another good outfielder on this roster.
I'm conflicted, which is weird after adding a player who just hit 40 home runs. It's not that the deal will probably look bad in the second half of its life, because most free agent deals do. It's that it could look bad after just one year, and there's a small chance it falls apart right away. But it's a risk that the Mariners were finally in a position to take, and they took it. They've raised their 2015 baseline by a non-insignificant amount and they've left themselves with all their chips to take this roster even further. I would have felt a lot better if this addition was Victor Martinez, but let's not undersell how hard it is to bring free agent hitters to Seattle.
It isn't ideal, but it is someone. Somebody who's right-handed and fills a need they've been pursuing for years, and failing at. A contract that's big, but not crippling if it tanks. The addition could be a better fit via trade, but if the Mariners would have to give up a bunch of talent to get somebody who might make as big of an impact as Cruz, and then we'd still be saying they need to add more -- without enough ammo to do so. Otherwise, they're dipping into a free agent class of questionable quality who may or may not like the travel and ballpark associated with Seattle. Jack Zduriencik has convinced major free agent hitters to come to Seattle two years in a row. Money talks, but it hasn't always when it comes to Seattle. The stigma is fading.
Is it an overpay? Almost certainly. But a dollar at the end of this deal won't be worth the same as it is today. Cash is flowing like crazy around baseball, and this deal doesn't reflect that current, or future influx. It's present value, just on a career year for a hitter who probably won't age great.
Beyond the concerns over the future, 2015 just got a lot more fun. Cruz's power is monstrous and he'll be a wildly entertaining player to watch at the plate. Plus, there's so much more the Mariners can add if they choose to do so. Jack Zduriencik's defining offseason is underway with a bang, and I can't wait to see what's next.