In December of 2014, Jack Zduriencik made perhaps one of the Jack Zduriencik-iest of moves when he signed a thirty-four year old Nelson Cruz. It was the sort of move we all knew was coming. The Mariners had just missed the playoffs by something like five innings, and more offense was the shout. Nelson, having just come off a monster year in Baltimore where he played on a one-year, eight-million dollar "prove it" deal, looked to have made the greatest choice of his career. There was no way that he had much left in the tank, certainly not more than a year or two of average-ish hitting. Just a year after, if rumor has it, the previous ownership nixed a deal for Cruz due to PED concerns, Jack gave him four years, $58M, to come to Seattle and give whatever was left. A lot of people figured that wasn't very much.
Since Nelson Cruz donned the Blue and Teal of the Seattle Mariners, what has happened has been, well, a bit of a surprise. In under 900 PA's, Nellie has accumulated 6.3 fWAR, 1.5 of which has come this year while primarily playing DH. By Fangraphs "Value" metric, Nelson has already been worth $50.7M. The Mariners have Nelson Cruz until he will theoretically retire, however, what we are seeing here is not an old man waiting to die alone. No, Nelson Cruz is an absolute monster.
In fact, the hitter we're looking at in 2016 just might even be better than Nellie in 2015. Of course, the home runs are "down", he's on pace for a measly 30. Even if the power has dropped from the lofty heights of his 40-plus bombs from last season, Nellie has shown increased plate discipline. He's walking 3% above his career average, and striking out 2.5% less than in 2015. He's chasing less out of the zone. The wRC+ is still lofty as hell, at 150. He's hitting for average and power with a slugging at .508. It's slight, but his contact% is above his career average, too.
It's not bad for a player who, by most accounts, the Mariners missed the boat on. Back when Nellie signed his one year contract with the Orioles, there was a lot of talk that the M's might be interested in his services. Of course, watching Cruz destroy the AL East while watching Kendrys Morales destroy plates of BBQ ribs did nothing to endear M's fans to the move when we paid top dollar for an aging bat, the year after he reached his theoretical ceiling. However, Nelson Cruz just may be one of the greatest gifts that the Jack Z era provided. That team hand-cuffing nearly $60M has actually been a bargain for an elite bat.
We can't know how much longer he'll be at the top of his game, but at thirty-five, he doesn't show many signs of slowing down. Even if his power diminishes, he's showing an ability to evolve his bat to continually work in the middle of the lineup. In fact, if Cruz continues his current pace, ending the year with 4.5 fWAR, he will have already been worth over $70M in his first two years. He's providing $20M/year of value over his contract. That's actually insane. There aren't that many bargains in baseball found in free agency. Nelson Cruz has been that and more. Long may that continue.