As Jerry Dipoto has wasted no time in reshaping the top, middle, and lower portions of the Mariners organization we are seeing a complete philosophical change wash over us in shockingly swift fashion. When large scale leadership changes are made and visions laid out at introductory press conferences typically these are the kinds of things we plan on waiting years, if ever, to see fully implemented.
At his first day on the job, and many times since, Dipoto has emphasized a desire for more "fast, athletic outfielders". This has immediately been evident in his acquisition of Loenys Martin, and to a lesser extent Boog Powell. With the re-signing of Franklin Gutierrez and presumed incumbency of Seth Smith the Mariners, theoretically, have the makings of an actual outfield, staffed with actual outfielders.
Of course in this theoretical outfield sits Nelson Cruz, who was both the team's best offensive player in over a decade in 2015, and a plodding, below average at best defensive outfielder. It's a difficult, if decent problem to have. From Jason Heyward to Alex Gordon to Gerardo Parra there are many players available that seemingly better fit Dipoto's ideal corner outfielder. It would also be foolish to project anything near the 158 wRC+ Cruz put up last year, even if you think Steamer's 2016 projection of 119 is low (as I do).
A cursory glance of the roster seemingly reveals an easy solution: Put Cruz at DH. With no obvious everyday player for the position the team benefits from having Cruz's bat in the lineup without suffering his erm, well, y'know:
The problem with making Cruz a full-time DH is that he historically hasn't been as good of a hitter in that role:
Nelson Cruz Career wRC+
DH - 118
OF - 127
While acknowledging the sample size issue the gap grows even larger when looking at last year:
Nelson Cruz 2015 wRC+
DH - 116
OF - 196(!)
The 2015 example is extreme but Cruz isn't alone in this. There is research showing that hitters just don't hit as well when playing designated hitter. Also, being locked into a B-level DH for his 35-37 years at $42 million is less than ideal, particularly in a market when the team could potentially add another big contract star in a position of great need.
From my perspective I see Dipoto having four basic options here, which I'll list in what, using some connections, observational skills, and tea-leaf reading I feel are ascending order of likelihood:
1) Convert Nelson Cruz to first base
Jerry Crasnick of ESPN tweeted this morning about the Mariners looking to trade Mark Trumbo, a move which would open up the first base position for Cruz. It's an intriguing idea as the team could shed Trumbo's likely ~$10 mil salary, move Cruz to a less demanding position, and open up a position and money for that shiny new corner outfielder.
The problem is that switching to a position you've never played before is hard. Ask Brad Miller, or Rickie Weeks. While first base is ostensibly the simplest position to play in the field that doesn't mean it's easy. Tell 'em Wash, etc. To ask Nelson Cruz to learn a new position in months is asking a lot, and you risk throwing off the groove that led to him mashing taters all last year, which is the whole reason you want him on the field to begin with. I just don't see a team that clearly values defense going for it.
2) Trade Nelson Cruz
Trading the team's best offensive player from a year ago is not a pleasant thought, particularly for a franchise so starved for runs as this decade's Mariner teams have often been. However there's real merit to the idea for Cruz. There is almost no chance that he duplicates his 2015 this coming year. (I'll personally be surprised if he gets to 90% of it.) Also there is a high probability that the highest Cruz's trade value will ever be until the day he retires from baseball is right now, this offseason.
It would be a hugely unpopular move, both with the public and with the team, where Cruz is hugely popular. However it's an option worth serious consideration, and I'd be surprised if Dipoto and company aren't giving it exactly that. Jerry has already shown a willingness to buy low, it follows to reason he's similarly open to selling high.
At the end of the day I don't think it happens, but if the team decides to go all in on a FA outfielder (Jason Heyward plz) the combination of trade return and salary relief could prove too tempting.
3) Don't mess with success, keep Cruz as the primary RF, and put Mr. Whoever the Hell at DH
It's hard to argue with a 158 wRC+, 44 home runs, and one of the great offensive seasons in Safeco Field history. All last year Cruz was the bedrock of a sneakily not terrible Mariner offense, and while Dipoto's FO has definitely shown a preference for a defense-first organizational model, you don't screw around with one of 2015's scariest hitters.
The team could use Boog Powell as a part-time RF/CF, put Cruz at DH occasionally, and attempt to dumpster dive to fill out the remaining DH at bats. It also keeps Cruz happy, which keeps the core of this roster (Felix/Cano/Seager/Cruz) happy. That's a good thing, because if those guys are bad this team is toast for 2016, no matter what else happens.
4) Move Nelson Cruz to primary DH, with occasional starts in right field
At the end of the day this where I think the team ends up going. Nelson Cruz should be a DH at this point in his career. The key is getting him to buy into the idea. With Edgar Martinez, the greatest designated hitter ever in the fold able to impart whatever wisdom a hitting coach can impart combined with a sales pitch to Cruz on the ability of this transition to elongate his career the Mariners fill a hole at DH, while also still spending moderately (perhaps Gerardo Parra) on a most days right fielder.
The team improves defensively, the offense improves with another major league bat, and Nelson Cruz saves wear and tear on his legs, helping the team push towards a pennant in late September. It's a win win.
There's a sliding scale effect at play here, no matter where Dipoto goes with it. If moving Cruz to DH costs the team runs, then whoever replaces him in RF needs to save more than they give up. The same goes for keeping him in right and scrap heaping the DH position. It all involves a lot more knowledge of the game and math than I possess, and is why I'm but a humble blogger and fan. Let those guys figure it out.
Having one of last year's best hitters penciled into your lineup is never a bad problem to have, and Nelson Cruz is far from a negative on the 2016 Seattle Mariners. But with so many other high price, longterm deals in place his fit is tricky. How Jerry Dipoto and company decide to optimize Cruz's role, or maximize his value, could have a huge impact on whether next year's Mariner team is finally the one to finally return us to playoff baseball.
No pressure, Jerry.