The Day That They Signed Nelson Cruz
I don’t mean to exaggerate, but it’s kind of like being sick. If you’re like me, you’re a bit of a worrier, and you have a tendency to worry about symptoms. You worry less upon receiving a diagnosis, even if it turns out something is wrong. It’s just better to know how to focus your worry — it’s the mystery that’s terrifying. When you don’t know what’s going on, anything could be going on, and there’s no defending yourself against that. When you have an answer, you develop a plan. You’re able to think more clearly, and you see the upside in whatever is happening. Mystery is important when it comes to the good things, but when something’s bad, there’s comfort in certainty.
Many have been afraid of the Nelson Cruz contract for more than a year. Almost exactly this Nelson Cruz contract, as a matter of fact. More recently, there was also reason to be afraid of the other rumors, rumors involving names like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton and Justin Upton who’s almost a free agent. It was clear the Mariners were going to do something about their right-handed deficiency, and we just weren’t sure what that something would be. Could involve money. Could involve youth. Could involve money and youth. Last night I almost sat here and wrote about this, but I couldn’t find a thesis. Doesn’t matter now, we have the answer. It involves money. The Mariners are giving a lot of it to the Cruz family.
It also involves youth, in that the Mariners are losing a draft pick, which isn’t worth nothing. But it’s a lot easier to stomach losing something you didn’t yet feel like you had, and that draft pick didn’t have a name. It didn’t have a position and a height and a weight and a projectable body. It didn’t have a girlfriend and family members watching along in the living room waiting for a familiar name to be announced. The Mariners are trading a prospect for Cruz, but it’s a prospect they never started to mold, so the focus is on the four years and the $57 million. That overwhelms the value of the prospect anyway. Justifiably, the story is the commitment.
It’s too big. The Mariners are overpaying for Cruz. The team that loves him most — the team that just saw him lead the league in dingers — didn’t want to go past three years. So the Mariners are doing it, and they’re getting their guy, the guy they almost had a year ago before ownership reportedly nixed the deal because of a policy it must no longer have. To explain the $57-million expense, no one’s talking about what Cruz will be worth in the back half; the hope is what happens this year or next year will make it okay. The hope is Cruz will be a big help immediately, and then the future will sort itself out, and you can work around a Nelson Cruz overpay if you’re able to see it coming.
Cruz’s average salary is $14.25 million. I don’t know how it breaks down year to year, but toward the end, that’ll represent at least 10% or so of the Mariners’ payroll. Cruz probably isn’t going to be very good when he’s 37 or something. This is an example of how that can matter:
Hart pointed out the bad contracts they have to carry in Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton and how much that affects what they’re trying to do XM 89
— Jim Bowden (@JimBowden_ESPN) November 30, 2014
Dead money gets in the way of things. It renders your payroll a lower effective payroll. It would be silly to suggest the Mariners will be somehow immune to feeling Cruz’s decline, because they can spend only so much, and Cruz will be guaranteed a big chunk of the money, but the future’s a mystery, right? What we care about most is what we understand most, and that’s the single season ahead. In 2015, the Mariners project to be quite good. Cruz projects to be the best he will be from now on. He’s right-handed. He fills a position of absolute, inarguable need. I don’t think the Mariners acted out of desperation; I think they just saw a shining example of something, and they decided to click on Buy It Now instead of participate in an auction. They’ve been left out before, waiting until there was nothing good available. There’s some value in knowing you’ve plugged a hole on the first of December.
The Mariners were blessed with Edgar Martinez. Between 1995 – 2004, the Mariners had the best DH slot in the American League, and they were the best by a lot. Then, of course, Edgar retired, and while there was nothing wrong with his retirement, one could say he didn’t do much to help the team to identify a worthy replacement. Between 2005 – 2014, the Mariners had the worst DH slot in the American League, and they were the worst by a lot. You know the stat wRC+? It’s a measure of offense, where 100 is league-average. Over the past decade, the second-worst team DH slot has had a wRC+ of 100. The Mariners came in at 84.
Now here’s the part you really won’t believe. Red Sox DHs — David Ortiz — have led the way, with 32 WAR. Then you’ve got the Indians, at 15.6. The Blue Jays, at 10.4. The Yankees, at 9.0. Keep going down. The Orioles, at 1.0. The Astros, at 0.2. The Mariners, at -11.7. Read that again. The Mariners, at -11.7. Over the past ten years, since Edgar called it a career, Mariner designated hitters have been worth a combined dozen wins below replacement level. This might be the most incredible thing I’ve seen all year. I can’t tell. I objectively recognize it as incredible, but it doesn’t pack the same punch to me since it’s not really a surprise. We’ve all lived it. We just didn’t look at it so cumulatively.
It’s amazing how bad the Mariners have been there. At what’s supposed to be the very easiest spot to put a hitter, the Mariners have posted the same collective positional wRC+ as Ben Revere. That’s why it’s okay to feel some sense of relief. Cruz should at least hit, and hit at a not-embarrassing level, and while we’ve said that about various Mariner DH candidates before, this one feels better. Partly explains why, in the poll below, three times as many people have positive opinions as negative. Some of that’s also just bias, but we’ve lived a nightmare within a nightmare. Cruz might one day decline into a nightmare, but he should at least allow us to rest easy in 2015. And then after that, who knows? Maybe we’ll be dead.
Watch this. You’ve seen it before. It’s stupid.
That’s a stupid home run. Nelson Cruz hit it at Safeco Field against maybe the best pitcher in the American League. It’s also practically an impossible home run. Only a handful of players in baseball could do that, feels like. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, that home run was never more than 41 feet off the ground. Which means it was the lowest home run of the season that actually flew over a fence.
Cruz also hits the other kind of impressive home run:
He’s a pure power hitter. The alarming thing is that he’s very similar to what Michael Morse was supposed to be, and that’s a valid observation. This has gone tits up before, and Morse wasn’t signed for four whole years. But Cruz has actually been quite healthy lately, missing time in the last three years only for that pesky suspension, and it seems like Cruz won’t see much of the outfield. Cruz is also kind of what Corey Hart was supposed to be, which is another valid observation, but Hart was coming off a whole year lost. This past season, he couldn’t find his legs, so he didn’t have his swing. Nelson Cruz, to my knowledge, has his legs. Probably the kind of thing that gets noted on a physical.
Nelson Cruz is going to have what one might refer to as visceral at-bats. When he hits a pitch, he’ll really hit it, and you’ll know it immediately. Some of his home runs, you’re going to feel coming; others are going to come completely out of nowhere. You’re going to look forward to his spot in the lineup, even though he’s going to make his share of easy outs. In the short term, there should be enough productivity to make it all worthwhile. In the short term, the Mariners are trying to make the 2015 playoffs, and if they pull that off, what might be possible with the additional revenue in the seasons ahead? The ultimate message is that the team just signed last year’s league leader in home runs. That’s as matter-of-fact as it gets. The Mariners got what they wanted, and we’ll worry about the future when the future knows how 2015 went.
Here’s what could conceivably happen. Over a stretch of 255 plate appearances last June through last August, Cruz hit .203/.267/.388. It’s obvious when he’s not hitting, and when he’s not hitting, he’s pointless. Before that stretch, though, his OPS was in almost the four digits. Afterward, it was north of four digits. If Cruz falls apart, we can’t say it came without warning, because he was just bad for a couple months. But the story of Cruz’s whole career is that he makes up for his outs with his homers. There are a lot more outs than homers, but homers are a lot more positive than outs are negative. As he declines, the ratio will get worse. Cruz is the kind of guy who can pick his overall numbers up overnight. His decline will just look like slightly longer slumps.
Richie Sexson might be a data point here. His wRC+ after signing with the Mariners:
Then his career was over. Sexson provided one great year, and one fine year, and then he was dreadful. The last two years, he was a complete waste of money. But now bring that into the current circumstances. Would that be an acceptable trajectory, given where the Mariners presently stand? I think a lot of people would argue it would. People are pretty tired of finding something else to do in October.
Here’s one other way you can think about this. As long as we’re rationalizing, let’s rationalize. There’s no such thing in baseball as an obviously brilliant move, or an obviously terrible move. At least, there’s almost no such thing. Moves, mostly, have about a 50% chance of going well and a 50% chance of not going well. Some moves might be more like 60/40, and others might be more like 40/60. Let’s say that Cruz and the Mariners is more like 40/60. Let’s say it’s probably more bad than good.
What are the chances Cruz goes as projected? Like, exactly as he’s projected to go? There’s a good chance Cruz out-plays his projections, in which case, he’s basically worth the commitment. And there’s a good chance Cruz badly under-performs, in which case, he’s not worth the money, but we could write it off as an unforeseen and sudden decline. If Cruz falls apart overnight, we couldn’t say the Mariners should’ve seen that coming. It would be kind of like Chone Figgins, except that Figgins looked smarter at the outset. But, if Cruz goes badly enough, people will blame Cruz more than the front office. It’ll just be bad luck. The Mariners aren’t investing in a probable disaster, they’re just investing in a possible disaster, and the odds favor Cruz being, at worst, overpaid. Especially in four years, but the Mariners are giving four years to one Nelson Cruz, not a whole team of them.
2,000 words to say, it’s better than trading Taijuan Walker. The Mariners are a good team, and Nelson Cruz makes them a better team, and they paid more than anyone else would pay, but the need was also greater than anyone else’s, and the Mariners look to be right there among the contenders. So the Mariners, on paper, dealt damage to their own future to try to improve the present, and if it works out, benefits from the present will help to erase the future damage. Nelson Cruz wasn’t the only move the Mariners could’ve made. Other, more creative routes might’ve been possible that would require less of a commitment. For that reason, signing Nelson Cruz isn’t a brilliant move. But an acceptable move? I think we can accept it. Sometimes a man wants a double cheeseburger. Sometimes a double cheeseburger is the best god-damned thing you’ve ever eaten.