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|
|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|
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|
|2014||Hart + Morales||0.302||0.113||41||-25.4||0.257||64||$10,300,000||$251,220|
|2012||Montero + Jaso||0.311||0.096||46||-25.8||0.264||69||$1,000,000||$21,739|
|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|
|2006||Everett + Broussard||0.366||0.131||55||-21.1||0.291||74||$4,500,000||$81,818|
*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.