Around Where Does Nelson Cruz Start To Make Sense?
Here’s a thing about Nelson Cruz: nobody really wants him. Mariners fans have been afraid of the Cruz possibility from the beginning of the offseason, and the rumors haven’t gone away, with Ken Rosenthal chiming in Friday. Nevermind the performance-enhancing drug suspension; Cruz, simply, is overrated by people paid to talk about the game. He turns 34 years old in July and he doesn’t really walk or play defense. People have been terrified that the Mariners would give Cruz the massive contract he entered the offseason looking for.
Here’s another thing about Nelson Cruz: nobody really wants him. It’s the middle of January and Cruz remains a free agent, and he’s a free agent without a strong market. The best fit, at this point, is probably Baltimore, but Baltimore hasn’t done anything. Seattle’s the only other fit, and they haven’t done anything. The Phillies looked obvious from the get-go, but they instead went with Marlon Byrd. Maybe, in the past, Cruz would’ve secured a major payday, but teams are smarter now, and one of the first things smart baseball people learn is that players like Cruz are overrated.
Used to be people talked about five years and $75 million, like Cruz was going to get it from somebody. That would make for a certain disaster. That’s what turned people off from Cruz in the first place, as they wanted to avoid stepping on a landmine. But in reality, the choice isn’t Nelson Cruz for five years, or something else. Cruz will have to play for his best offer, and his best offer is going to be quite a bit lower than the nightmare offer we imagined in November.
Certain players, you don’t want under any circumstances, because they don’t make sense under any circumstances. Yuniesky Betancourt, for one. Yuni sucks, and he’s not getting better, and if you’re in a position where you’re considering a job for Yuniesky Betancourt, you’d be better off giving it to somebody younger. I wouldn’t want the Mariners to sign Betancourt for the league minimum. Other players, you don’t want at high salaries, but you can tolerate for something more reasonable. Any player who makes a positive contribution makes sense at some kind of deal, and Nelson Cruz isn’t a replacement-level outfielder. He’s just overrated and aging.
So as much as we’ve all been afraid of Cruz, we’ve really been afraid of an expensive Cruz. There is a point at which the Mariners could be sensible in signing Cruz to a deal. Even with the lost draft pick. The thing to consider isn’t the player, but the value of the player relative to his contract. Cruz could sign a reasonable contract. And look at the Mariners’ outfield right now. I like Michael Saunders, but he isn’t a star. Dustin Ackley might be charitably referred to as “developing”. Franklin Gutierrez spends half his take-home on bubble wrap. Logan Morrison hasn’t actually been good for years. Corey Hart’s neat, but after surgeries he might be a DH. Abe Almonte is interesting, but unproven and in possession of options. The Mariners have one of the worse projected outfields in the major leagues.
So Cruz could actually be an improvement. Maybe that means you put him in left and you make Hart the regular DH, and Morrison’s around to give breaks to Hart and Justin Smoak. And Cruz, too, for when he’s day-to-day. I don’t know, I’m not worried about the alignment right now. Cruz would probably make the Mariners better. So what would it be worth paying him, in exchange for his making the Mariners better?
The last three years, by FanGraphs, Cruz has been worth about 3.9 WAR. Baseball-Reference says 3.7. Steamer projects Cruz to be worth 1.6 in the coming season. Let’s just call it an easy 1.5. That’s worth about $9 million, flat.
Maybe you bump it to $10 million, given how close the Mariners are to being competitive. Now, there’s the matter of the draft pick. Let’s assume Kendrys Morales does sign somewhere else before June. In that case, the Mariners lose that compensation pick for signing Robinson Cano, and then they’d lose a second-rounder for signing Cruz. The slot value of the pick last year was about $1.2 million. Let’s value that pick at, say, $2 million. That pick could turn into a pretty good prospect. Subtract $2 million from $10 million and you have Cruz making sense at a year and $8 million.
But Cruz would probably like more security. Give him two years. Bump him down to roughly 1 WAR in 2015, because he is getting older, and if his skills don’t decline, he might still become more fragile. There’s, say, $6.5 million of value for a year from now. So we’re up to $14.5 million over two years.
Maybe Cruz wants three? You give him 0.5 WAR in the last year, and that’d be worth something in the neighborhood of $3.5 million. Which would take you up to $18 million over three years. John Buck, as it happens, is coming off a three-year deal worth $18 million. He signed when he was 30, and he’d been worth three or four wins over the previous three years. This offseason, Carlos Ruiz signed for three and $26 million. Scott Feldman signed for three and $30 million. Phil Hughes signed for three and $24 million. James Loney and Jarrod Saltalamacchia signed for three and $21 million. Javier Lopez, Boone Logan, and Joe Smith earned three-year contracts as relievers somehow. Cruz might not love the idea of $18 million over three years, or about $15 million over two, but he isn’t really the guy with the leverage here. He doesn’t have a market, and while he’d fit with the Orioles, the Orioles might prefer Morales, who also doesn’t have a market.
So all that — that would be reasonable. Cruz would make sense around:
- one year, $8 million
- two years, $14.5 million
- three years, $18 million
And these are estimates, so while three years and $20 million would be more than three years and $18 million, that still wouldn’t be terrible. Things start getting messy around three years and $30 million, and you definitely want to avoid a fourth guaranteed year, but even $30 million wouldn’t be a catastrophe, relative to what we expected a few months ago. That might be overpaying by about $4 million a year, but that’s a somewhat small fraction of the budget. Overpaying is seldom a good idea, but there are shades, there are degrees, and Cruz could be an awful lot more overpaid. We thought he would be. It’s not the end of the world to be a little bit off.
Look — gun to my head, I think Abe Almonte might actually be better than Nelson Cruz right now, given their respective overall packages. If that were true, then signing Cruz would be almost a complete waste. But Almonte could be put in Tacoma, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having depth. Depth allows you to re-visit things down the line. I’d love for Almonte to be good — I’d love for all the players to be good — but Almonte doesn’t need to be on the Opening Day roster. He’s not going to start to suck a lot if he isn’t in Seattle in April.
I don’t think I’m ever going to love the idea of the Mariners signing Nelson Cruz. It’s hard to love the idea of a team signing anyone who doesn’t even project to be overall league-average. The last three years, Cruz has been about as valuable as Joe Saunders, and nobody really wants him back. But Cruz could probably improve this team, and this team could absolutely use some improvements. So there’s a price at which Cruz would actually, really, genuinely make sense. With that in mind, I’m not totally opposed to the Mariners going the predictable route. I’m just opposed to them paying too high a toll.