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Nelson Cruz and playing baseball as an aging slugger

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Nelson Cruz probably isn't going to age well, but it might not be as bad as you think.

Let's hope this bubble doesn't pop for awhile.
Let's hope this bubble doesn't pop for awhile.
H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014 Nelson Cruz put together a wonderful offensive season, hitting .271/.333/.525, which was good for a wRC+ of 137. He was one of the top 20 hitters in all of baseball! And now he's a member of the Seattle Mariners... and likely will be for the next four years. Many people are worried about how Cruz's performance will deteriorate as he ages, but exactly how well-founded are these concerns? Is he definitely going to be dead-weight by the third/fourth years of his contract, or is there any reason to believe he'll still be an asset when he's 37 years old? And how much does this matter?

To try and figure this out, I've assembled a quick, not too detailed list of some relatively comparable players. Cruz is a "slugger" who the Mariners will likely (hopefully) use mostly as their DH. Therefore, I'm going to use a couple of "power numbers" to figure out some comps. Below are the 16 players over the last 50 years who, in their age-33 season, slugged between .500 and .550 and had an ISO between .220 and .280. The left columns show the stats from these players' age-33 seasons, while the right columns depict the combined numbers from their age-34 to their age-37 seasons, which would correspond to the years of Cruz's new contract with the M's. (If you're unfamiliar with a particular statistic, click on the link in the table heading for a quick refresher.)


age-33 season age-34 through age-37 seasons
Name PA HR ISO SLG wOBA wRAA wRC wRC+ PA HR ISO SLG wOBA wRAA wRC wRC+
Jose Bautista 673 35 0.239 0.524 0.402 47.4 120 159 To be determined
Nelson Cruz 678 40 0.254 0.525 0.370 31.1 104 137 To be determined
Mike Schmidt 669 40 0.270 0.524 0.401 42.7 118 152 2547 141 0.257 0.541 0.395 151.3 446 148
Frank Robinson 643 32 0.232 0.540 0.424 53 122 165 2133 102 0.216 0.493 0.387 117.5 345 146
Reggie Jackson 537 29 0.247 0.544 0.404 33.9 97 150 2062 109 0.232 0.488 0.371 83.8 313 132
Lance Berkman 563 25 0.235 0.509 0.387 27.3 95 138 1459 53 0.189 0.457 0.365 55.3 220 130
Alex Rodriguez 535 30 0.245 0.532 0.401 32.1 96 141 1733 71 0.194 0.463 0.355 51.7 248 120
Frank Howard 706 44 0.263 0.546 0.413 51.6 131 160 1252 48 0.177 0.441 0.352 38.7 167 125
Mike Piazza 541 33 0.264 0.544 0.381 24.5 89 136 1682 72 0.198 0.468 0.349 28.6 236 113
Tino Martinez 635 34 0.221 0.501 0.352 13.6 92 117 2009 76 0.180 0.442 0.340 20.3 265 106
Josh Willingham 615 35 0.264 0.524 0.380 32.1 102 142 835 28 0.169 0.380 0.326 9.2 100 106
Russell Branyan 505 31 0.269 0.520 0.368 16.5 77 126 574 30 0.231 0.457 0.337 7.9 73 113
J.D. Drew 539 24 0.243 0.522 0.394 29.2 94 135 832 26 0.157 0.401 0.323 2.7 98 95
Matt Williams 678 35 0.233 0.536 0.369 16.9 105 112 1227 44 0.181 0.449 0.329 -2.8 151 91
Boog Powell 502 27 0.228 0.524 0.403 30.7 86 153 396 9 0.108 0.326 0.302 -3.9 38 91
George Scott 653 33 0.231 0.500 0.364 21 97 117 850 18 0.140 0.383 0.312 -5.8 90 85

Both Bautista and Cruz pulled off this feat in 2014; we'll have to wait and see how they fare moving forward. For reference, the average wRC+ of the age-33 season of this group is 140; Cruz's 2014 ranks as a bit below average.

In any case, these numbers don't appear to be particularly encouraging. Only eight of these 14 players managed to stick around in the majors into their age-37 season. And of those, only five accumulated more than 1500 plate appearances. Furthermore, the quality of their offensive production declined somewhat precipitously; less than half of these men managed to put up a wRC+ above 113. (It's almost as if aging power hitters have trouble avoiding injury and suffer a major drop off in their skills when they turn 35. Weird.) Cruz's playing time concerns could be somewhat mitigated if he isn't forced into playing the field, but the odds seem to suggest Cruz will have trouble putting up 400 or 500 PA per season over the length of his contract. He'll certainly stick around to collect his $14.5 million per season, but he likely won't be an everyday player in 2 or 3 years.

Figuring out what Cruz needs to do to be worth his contract would require the appropriate positional adjustments and baserunning values, but from a purely hitting standpoint, Cruz probably needs to average at least 20 wRAA a season to be "worth" his contract. Unfortunately, only 3 of his 14 comps did this, and not even Cruz's biggest proponents are going to argue that he's the same class of hitter that Schmidt, Robinson, and Jackson were. So, yeah. For a multitude of reasons, Cruz is almost certainly not going to be worth the $57 million that the Mariners just shovelled at him.

But is that necessarily a bad thing?

Cruz was very good last year and he'll probably be good in 2015. In the short term, if Cruz matches his Steamer projection, he represents a ~4-5 WAR upgrade in 2015 compared to what the M's had at DH last season (-3.2 WAR!). For a team that missed the playoffs by one game in 2014, the addition of Cruz could make a huge difference.

Also, if/when Cruz does start to decline, that would simply mean that the Mariners are stuck with an ineffective DH for a year or two. Unsurprisingly, this is something that the Mariners are quite familiar with:

Year Primary DH SLG ISO wRC wRAA wOBA wRC+ approximate DH salary $/wRC
2015* Cruz 0.471 0.215 85 16.1 0.343 119 $14,250,000 $167,647
2014 Hart + Morales 0.302 0.113 41 -25.4 0.257 64 $10,300,000 $251,220
2013 Morales 0.447 0.183 85 12.8 0.339 116 $5,250,000 $61,765
2012 Montero + Jaso 0.311 0.096 46 -25.8 0.264 69 $1,000,000 $21,739
2011 Cust 0.333 0.108 58 -12.8 0.29 85 $2,500,000 $43,103
2010 Branyan + Bradley + Griffey 0.342 0.147 50 -23.9 0.274 72 $8,000,000 $160,000
2009 Griffey + Sweeney 0.420 0.179 78 -0.7 0.328 99 $2,500,000 $32,051
2008 Vidro 0.337 0.116 45 -30.8 0.268 62 $8,500,000 $188,889
2007 Vidro 0.387 0.094 83 -1.0 0.329 101 $7,500,000 $90,361
2006 Everett + Broussard 0.366 0.131 55 -21.1 0.291 74 $4,500,000 $81,818
2005 Ibanez 0.386 0.119 71 -5.3 0.316 95 $4,500,000 $63,380

*Projection from Steamer.

These numbers probably shouldn't be taken too seriously, but it's important to remember that the Mariners paid Corey Hart and Kendrys Morales more than $10 million last season. Those two players ultimately provided negative value to their team and the M's still almost made the playoffs. Cruz will make considerably more than $10 million a season, but it'll still be fairly difficult for him to be a bigger drain on the Mariners at any point during his contract than Morales and Hart were in 2014. This isn't to say that it's okay that the Mariners will likely be burning a bunch of money on their DH position in a few years; it's just a frame of reference to help you avoid falling too deeply into despair if Cruz's contract becomes something of a dead-weight in 2017. The addition of Cruz will likely be good for the Mariners in the short term and probably not quite as bad as you think in the long term.