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Nelson Cruz, the Mariners’ Silver Slugger

The bat may be silver but the heart is gold

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Seattle Mariners
goo ye ase all
Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

[Ed. note: Nelson Cruz won the Silver Slugger award for the DH position yesterday, and we are just delighted for him. Today, on the site, we will be celebrating Cruz through a combination of new works and re-posting some of our favorite things we’ve written about him. All hail our beautifully-eyebrowed god.]

In 2014, the Mariners badly needed a solution at the DH slot: the team ranked second-to-last in the AL by fWAR for the DH position, with the combination of Corey Hart, Kendrys Morales, and Jesus Montero combining for a -2.1 fWAR. Noting the combined slash lines of the three, Ryan Divish wrote in his blog the next day, “Cruz on his worst day should provide more than that.” That projection has held true, and more: the next year, the Mariners tied for first with the Blue Jays in fWAR from the DH spot (4.5). The team tied for third (with the Yankees) the year after that, and last year, ranked second. Not bad, for a signing that was viewed by most as a necessary evil, acquiring the big bat the Mariners needed without forfeiting young talent in a trade.

While Cruz’s 4/58MM deal wasn’t seen as a tremendous overpay by many in the industry—more “the cost of doing business,” recognizing that Cruz would provide most of his value in the first two years of his contract before catapulting off the abyss of his age-36 season—there were a few, highly vocal detractors of the deal. Keith Law called Cruz’s market “ridiculously overinflated,” noting that as “the type of player who tends to age poorly -- slow, unathletic, living off power rather than bat speed or defense,” Cruz would struggle to post a .300 OBP as he lost bat speed:

There's almost no chance for a four-year deal for a bat-only 34-year-old whose bat isn't even elite to work out well. You're hoping you recoup most of the value in the first year with a playoff berth, because you know by Year 4 you'll probably wonder if he should be a DFA candidate.

Here’s where Cruz ranks in all-time Mariners history, after just three years:

  • AVG: tied for 8th, with Griffey;
  • OBP: 9th (.368, ahead of Ichiro);
  • SLG: 2nd (.557, right behind A-Rod);
  • WPA: 7th (6th for WPA/LI);
  • OBPS: 4th;
  • Adjusted OPS+: 1st

He’s hit the ninth-most home runs in team history despite sharing the list with players who were Mariners for most of their careers, and has the second-best HR/AB rate, just behind Ken Phelps. It’s understandable people were wary of Cruz after one good year in Baltimore, where he posted as much fWAR (3.7) as he’d accrued in his past three years as a Ranger, combined. Last year, Cruz posted the best full-season OBP of his career, at .375—a far cry from scraping for .300.

As Mariners fans, we are very accustomed to the sliding doors way of looking at baseball, usually in a negative way. What if the Mariners had drafted [x player] instead of [x player]? What if the Mariners hadn’t made [insert horrible lopsided trade here]? What if Edgar Martinez never trips on that blasted piece of unzipped turf? The Cruz signing offers us an opportunity to look at things the other way: the Mariners reportedly were in hot pursuit of Victor Martinez before he decided to re-sign with the Tigers for a four-year, 68MM deal. What if the Mariners had gotten Victor Martinez, as they wanted, instead of Cruz?

  • Nelson Cruz, 2015 - 2017: 12.8 fWAR; .292/.368/.557; 150 wRC+
  • Victor Martinez, 2015 - 2017: -2.3 fWAR; .263/.325/.405; 94 wRC+

It’s so easy, as Mariners fans, to focus on the things that have gone really wrong, but Nelson Cruz is a thing that’s gone amazingly, incredibly right. This is all the more surprising because it should have gone so wrong! Everything on paper about this looked bad. Cruz was an aging slugger, he did fit into Jack Z’s mania for right-handed power hitters, all other skills be damned; he was old and expensive. And yet somehow, the Mariners landed a player who, in just three years, has become one of the greatest players to ever wear a Mariners uniform.

In order to understand why this worked out, you have to understand the man behind the numbers. You have to know about his maniacal devotion to his health—beyond the PED suspension, the clubhouse naps and rigorous offseason workouts that replaced the quick fix he went for earlier in his career. You have to understand that Nelson Cruz believes in a life of service to others, that he sees it as his duty to use what he sees as God-given talents to delight and entertain. You have to understand how much he loves his home of Las Matas de Santa Cruz, and how much he wants to succeed for his people, and so he can bring change to his community, and how he carries that love into his adopted home of Seattle. You have to understand how much he loves and feels a duty to his teammates, how he sees instructing younger players as part of his job, how he will bear-hug Kyle Seager and lift him in the air with the sheer force of his love and happiness and unabashed joy.

Boston Red Sox v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

The Nelson Cruz signing has worked out better than anyone could have possibly imagined, from a baseball and numbers and money standpoint. We’ve gotten a player who has been the best at what he does: an All-Star, and a Silver Slugger. But more than that, we’ve gotten a player with a spirit of generosity that never seems to run dry, a clubhouse leader who takes his job off the field as seriously as his on-field job, and someone who has indelibly made his mark on the skyline of Seattle sports. Thank you, Nelson, for all you’ve done in such a short time, for all the joy you’ve brought a fanbase that has seen more lean years than not; thank you for being so good at everything you do.