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40 in 40: Nelson Cruz

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Can the Mariners steady slugger continue to age gracefully?

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

No matter your metric, signing Nelson Cruz has been worth it. Grant wrote a piece stating as much this September, particularly as it relates to the financial value of the contract and his productivity, but it cannot be emphasized strongly enough.

2014-2015 Offseason OF/DH Signings

2014-2015 Offseason Signing Position Contract fWAR
2014-2015 Offseason Signing Position Contract fWAR
Pablo Sandoval 3B/1B/DH 5 years, $95 million -2.2
Hanley Ramirez LF/1B/DH 4 years, $88 million 0.8
Yasmany Tomas LF/RF 4 years, $68 million -1.5
Victor Martinez 1B/DH 4 years, $68 million -1.1
Nelson Cruz LF/DH 4 years, $58 million 9
Chase Headley 3B/DH 4 years, $52 million 4.2
Nick Markakis RF 4 years, $44 million 2.6
Melky Cabrera LF 3 years, $42 million 1.3
Billy Butler 1B/DH 3 years, $30 million -1
Adam LaRoche 1B/DH 2 years, $25 million 0.2

One of these things is not like the other. In fact, considering the combined value of the other nine players on this list over the last two seasons is 3.3 fWAR total, one of these things is not like nine combined others. A signing that we all saw coming and was viewed, at least in this community, with anything from mild skepticism to serious rage has been an absolute steal on paper. The words “Nelson Cruz” and “paper” should only exist in the same sentence, however, when describing his paycheck. If Seth Smith (RIP) has been the Mariners’ Dad over the last few seasons, Nellie has been the Fun Uncle. Cruz and his game are as far from dull and flat as anyone to wear a Mariners uniform in my entire lifetime.

Whatever the exact emotion is that Jered Weaver generates, Cruz produced its exact antithesis in the usually stoic Kyle Seager.

A young kid named Ketel Marte had a good day at the plate and earned a postgame interview? The oldest position player on the team is here to bring some solemnity.

Quote after quote from players and members of the organization have extolled Cruz’s leadership, intelligence, and work ethic as both individually remarkable and invaluable to the team. Prior to the 2016 season, Cruz was one of the leaders called in by new manager Scott Servais, and in what I believe to be Servais’s shrewdest managerial decision thus far, he instructed Cruz, Canó, Félix, and Seager that they, not he, would be in charge of forming the clubhouse culture. Even the coldest of hearts could tell that last year’s Mariners team had a camaraderie and verve that was exuberant and fun to watch. Jean Segura, a teammate of Canó and Cruz in the Dominican Republic, raved about the opportunity to play with them both, and spoke highly of each as players and leaders. Even beyond consistent production and intangible value, Cruz’s greatness has stood out.

In the darkness that was 2015, don’t forget who it was that held the night terrors at bay with his mighty Boomstick, waving it valiantly like Liam Neeson wielding a torch in The Grey.

Cruz broke Statcast last September, sending a Howler into the night sky, postage and all, and generating a Vine I have watched, conservatively, 300 times in my life.

301. 302. 303. Whoops.

There is nothing more you can ask of a player than what Cruz has already done, and yet down the stretch he insisted on playing through nerve damage in his hand and wrist that was visibly excruciating, because he knew he was the best hope for the Mariners as they made a final playoff push. If I did not feel compelled to limit the number of videos in this post, I would include each home run from final game of the Twins series in September, where Cruz buckled over in pain multiple times, placed a metaphorical belt between his teeth, and swatted two home runs to drag the seemingly exhausted Mariners into a final playoff push.

Just kidding, it’s worth the extra megabytes.

There occasionally comes a point in a relationship with a person, be it familial, romantic, or friendly, where someone is simply so dependable, so trustworthy, and so consistently exceeds expectations that you cannot help but struggle to think about them in a fully logical way. Logic suggests cynicism and caution. It is often correct.

As you can infer from the majority of this article to this point, I have come to this point with Nelson Cruz. It seems logical that a 36 year-old slugger will see his body begin to decline. Then again, Cruz will only need to take the field in interleague play in 2017. As a full-time DH, Cruz will be insulated from a great deal of day-to-day stress on his body. As Colin O’Keefe mentioned in his excellent piece when Cruz was acquired, there is always the possibility of lingering benefits from Cruz’s dalliance into PED’s four years ago, which cost him 50 games and millions of dollars as penance. Perhaps his legendary work ethic has made up for his aging, post-suspension. For a player who developed a reputation as injury-prone in his time in Texas, Cruz has been impressively durable, playing in 152+ games in four of the last five years, with the only exception being his suspension shortened season in 2013. The numbers Cruz has put up in what is supposedly the twilight of his career are in line with names like Mays, Musial, Manny, and, yes, that Martinez.

Perhaps he will decline. Projections expect him to, with Steamer expecting just 1.9 fWAR. They anticipate a noticeable drop in power, with Cruz’s ISO falling to .233, a number he has exceeded by at least 10 points in each of the last nine seasons except for 2012. Nellie is given greater credit by ZiPS, which expects a slight decline to 3.3 WAR and an OPS+ of 134, down from his 147 number last year. The ZiPS number seems like a fair appraisal to work from, and, assuming health, there simply have been no indications other than “he’s 36, he should start being bad” that would indicate he’s on the verge of a steep dropoff.

If Cruz struggles or is hurt for a brief stretch, the Mariners have Danny Valencia, Daniel Vogelbach, and even D.J. Peterson to feasibly keep the DH position afloat. The M’s will likely need Cruz to be healthy, however, set in the middle of an exciting batting order, to compete for the playoffs this year. Seattle had the opportunity to sell-high on him this offseason and didn’t. He’s earned their trust and he’s earned mine.

Sitting in a house in Portland last October, I watched Nelson Cruz invoke the spirit of Kirk Gibson in the most important game of the last 15 years of this franchise. A one-armed hero refusing to lose, Cruz rejects the inevitability of failure and decline that have become our second nature in our Dark Ages. I have no memory of how the Mariners lost game 161, truth be told. I do know, however, why they had a chance in the first place.

Boomstick for 2017. Boomstick forever.