Because Of Course They Are
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) November 12, 2013
Let’s put aside the Carlos Beltran stuff for now. The Yankees want Beltran, the Rangers want Beltran, the Cardinals want Beltran back; barring some kind of unreported desire to have access to fresh caught salmon, there’s little reason to think that Carlos Beltran is going to be particularly excited about playing for the Mariners. The Mariners are interested in Carlos Beltran the same way that most 18 year old males are interested in taking a swimsuit model to the prom.
So let’s talk about the first part of that tweet. Jerry Crasnick suggests that the Mariners would like to sign free agent outfielder Nelson Cruz. Because most of us have been busy speculating about how many dollars the Mariners will throw at Jacoby Ellsbury this winter, we haven’t talked too much about Cruz here, but it makes perfect sense that the Mariners would be interested in Nelson Cruz. Because we know that this front office places a very high value on this particular skillset. For your reference, below are Nelson Cruz’s core offensive numbers over the last three seasons, compared to the same numbers that Michael Morse put up in the three seasons prior to be acquired by the Mariners last winter.
Morse’s overall offensive totals from 2010 to 2012 were better than Cruz’s from 2011 to 2013, but that was entirely due to the fact that Morse had one of the highest rates of hits on balls in play, a number that has a lot less predictive value than things like walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power. In these core numbers, Cruz and Morse are basically identical twins.
The similarities don’t end there, of course. Both are physically built like linebackers. Both are right-handed power hitters, which the Mariners believe they need to add to their line-up for balance and to help against left-handed pitching. Both are injury prone, spending parts of nearly every season of their career on the disabled list. Neither are particularly good defenders or baserunners, and accumulate almost all of their damage at the plate. Both have been suspended for using PEDs. Both are on the wrong side of 30 and are headed to the decline phase of their careers.
Their overall performances aren’t exactly equal. 2010 to 2012 Morse was a slightly better hitter (thanks to the aforementioned BABIP) and worse fielder than 2011 to 2013 Cruz has been. Over those three seasons, Morse averaged +12 runs of offense and -15 runs of defense compared to an average player, while Cruz was +6/-11. Cruz is a little less bat and a little more glove, but it’s basically the exact same player type. There are few players in baseball more similar than Cruz and Morse.
The Mariners, of course, were thrilled to acquire Michael Morse last winter. They made a big deal about how he was going to revolutionize their line-up, and how he was the kind of Big Bat they’d been missing for years. He was considered a vital cog of the 2013 plan, and if you ask them what went wrong last year, they will frequently point to his early season injury as a big reason for why the plan didn’t work.
At no point has the organization ever suggested that they think perhaps it wasn’t a very good plan, however. They love players like this. It’s why they’ve kept non-prospects like Carlos Peguero hanging around and acquired a thousand low rent versions of this same player type. The list of low walk, high strikeout, one dimensional sluggers the Mariners have stockpiled over the last few years is getting absurdly long; no one likes this player type more than Jack Zduriencik’s Mariners. Of course they’re interested in Nelson Cruz.
But they really shouldn’t be. Cruz is Texas’ Kendrys Morales, a mediocre player with an outsized reputation based on irrelevant HR/RBI numbers. While Morales is a “professional hitter”, Cruz is “right-handed power”, and in both cases, the talking points are about how scarce these things are in the “post Steroid Era”. Like with Morales, what is not mentioned is that the “power” isn’t exactly that amazing to begin with, it comes with weak on base percentages, and Cruz does nothing else to add any value to a big league team. The Rangers made Cruz a qualifying offer which he turned down, so he’s now a compensation attached free agent, and he turned the offer down because he’s expecting to land a multi-year deal this winter.
The FanGraphs Crowd projected Cruz’s contract to come in at $32 million over three years, while former GM (and recent successful prognosticator of free agent contracts) Jim Bowden projected $48 million over those same three years. The guys over at MLBTradeRumors guessed three years and $39 million. Everyone’s in the same ballpark, basically, so let’s just take the average of the three guesses and say Cruz will cost $40 million over three years.
To live up to that contract, Cruz would have to be a league average player over the life of the deal, or maybe slightly above average. $40 million over three years should buy you something like +6 or +7 WAR from 2014 to 2016.
From 2011 to 2013, Nelson Cruz produced +3.9 WAR. From 30-32, he was 2/3 of the player he’d need to be from 33-35 in order to justify the expected cost of signing him, and that’s not even including the loss of the draft pick in the calculation. In reality, Cruz projects to be about a +1.5 WAR player next year, and then probably a +1.0 WAR player in 2015, and probably a +0.5 WAR player in 2016. A team signing him should expect to get roughly +3 WAR over the next three years. In a rational market, Cruz would probably land a deal roughly similar to the one David DeJesus signed with Tampa Bay, which paid him $5 million per year for two years with a team option for the third year.
DeJesus, while being wildly different than Cruz, is basically as valuable. This is what a slightly below average outfielder heading into his decline phase should cost. But teams have decided to pay ridiculous prices for power hitters while undervaluing performance in things that are not home runs, so players like Cruz cost way too much to acquire and hardly ever provide a positive return on investment. And that’s why I ranked Nelson Cruz as the #1 land mine of the 2014 free agent class. There is no player available this winter who has a bigger gap between his perceived abilities and his actual value.
And there’s no player who fits the mold of the player the Mariners overvalue more than Nelson Cruz. So, yeah, maybe we should have all seen this coming. Maybe instead of expecting the Mariners to throw a lot of money at a very good speed-and-defense player, we should have expected the Mariners to throw a little bit less money at a mediocre dingers-and-ribbies player. After last off-season, expecting anything else was probably wish-casting.