Great players are a paradox as a writer, because you simultaneously worry about writing both too much, and too little about them. Nelson Cruz has been a regular topic here the past two seasons, both for myself and the site as a whole. There’s good reason for that, as he’s spent his time in Seattle crushing the baseball in a way no Mariner ever has before him (more on that later).
After a three game series in Minnesota in which Cruz hit four home runs in three games, before exiting because the force of his swing is such that it may be physically damaging his wrist, we’re going to risk a few more words.
I don’t want to go into the whole backstory, and delve deeply into how the Nelson Cruz signing represented to most of us as the largest, most expensive example of Jack Zduriencik’s right-handed power fetish. But I do think it’s important, as much to myself as to you, the reader, to remember how long we dreaded the idea of him becoming a Mariner. He was the albatross, forever circling, and we were dreading all that guano.
Of course the past two years have been yet another reminder that outliers exist, and that sometimes questionable process can lead to great results. After mashing two more home runs in Sunday’s game, Nelson Cruz’s Mariner line now reads as such:
Cruz’s two year stretch, indeed, ranks among the very best in all of baseball. He is 9th in wOBA (.387), 6th in wRC+ (151), and 5th in Slugging (.556), and tied for 1st in Home Runs (85).
While his offensive production has ever so slightly taken a step back from 2015, every indication is that his skillset is virtually unchanged, if not slightly improved. His BB% is up, his K% is down. He is hitting more flyballs, and fewer groundballs. After finishing last year 11th in the first ever Average Exit Velocity leaderboard, at 93.4 MPH, he is leading the entire sport this year (min. 50 "events") at 96.4 MPH. The only thing keeping Cruz's numbers from exceeding last year's "career year" is what feels very much like simple BABIP regression (.317 vs. 350 last year).
To get even more cutting edge, we have the not-even-a-week-old "Barrels" metric. The loose idea of the metric being a mixture of exit velocity and launch angle to determine particular batters' ability to "get all of one". Nelson Cruz, not surprisingly, is second in all of baseball this year, at 64. Who is first? Well I'm not going to tell you, but it's not Steve Clevenger.
Let's shift the tenor of praise here. Often, I appreciate Cruz in the context of the decade of offensive failure that preceded him in Seattle. But for this, I’ll go a step further. The Mariner franchise, as a whole, will probably always be defined by the offensive collection of talent it assembled in the mid to late 90’s. Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Edgar Martinez are three of the greatest offensive players of this, or any era. With that preamble aside, consider the all-time Mariner franchise leaderboard in wRC+ (min. 300 PA):
- Nelson Cruz - 152
- Edgar Martinez - 147
- Ken Phelps - 144
- Ken Griffey Jr. - 139
- Alex Rodriguez - 137
Look at that list. First of all, there is definitely a worthy appreciation of Ken Phelps to be written here soon. Secondly, by one metric Nelson Cruz is in fact the most potent offensive player in Mariner franchise history. The Mariners may not know championships, or playoff appearances, or happiness, but they do know players who can mash the hell out of baseballs. In Nelson Cruz, they have found a new champion of that simple ideal.
Since the 2015 season ended, I have felt strongly that the Mariners should seek to trade Nelson Cruz. His 44 home runs and 4.8 fWAR were an unexpected gift; that rare post-30 player who not only finds a new level of success, as he did in Baltimore in 2014, but actually builds upon it. It felt like an opportunity to sell high, and to shed whatever post-prime salary baggage this team could shed, with another rebuild seemingly inevitable.
There is still a lot of merit to that train of thought, and after this season the Mariners, again, will face a crossroads of what to do about having so little young talent, while owing so much to so few. But Nelson Cruz has proven that this is not a fluke. Over the past three years he has shown himself to be one of the game's most fearsome hitters. He stands on the cusp of finishing a two year stretch among the greatest in Mariner history. He is, against all odds, one of my favorite Mariners of the Safeco Era, and possibly its very best hitter.
Trading Nelson Cruz could make sense, but the fear of the albatross is gone. Cruz is one of the best hitters alive, and would be coveted on the open market, even at his age. Any decision to part with him should be, appropriately, made from a negotiation position of strength. Jack Zduriencik's most predictable gaff, may end up being one of his finest deals. Go baseball, go Nelson Cruz.
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