Nelson Cruz is still a baseball player, I assume. He’s a free agent awaiting a contract, so technically he’s unemployed. When you’re sitting on a big payday — even if that payday might be less than you first imagined — you can probably call it “funemployed.”
This period of funemployment won’t last much longer for Cruz. When the winter started and his lofty contract expectations became public, many fans feared giving a player like Cruz the kind of commitment he expected. A few months later, he is still out there. It is important to recognize that, while Cruz isn’t a star by any means, he remains a valuable player who can help the right team in 2014.
Who are these right teams that can tackle the risk of adding Nelson Cruz knowing that the back half of his deal (like just about every other FA contract) won’t look as attractive?
Firstly – a frank assessment of what Nelson Cruz is and what Nelson Cruz isn’t. He is older than his experience suggests, as he bounced around a little bit before coming into his own with the Rangers at age 28. A proto-Bautista when he broke out in 2009 after a promising finish to the 2008 season with Texas.
Since then, Nelson Cruz is one of the 20 best power hitters in the game. He has more home runs than Josh Hamilton and a higher slugging percentage than Evan Longoria. His 135 home runs are 17th in all of baseball across these five seasons.
On the downside, he is now 33-years old, doesn’t play much in the way of outfield defense, and called a very favorable ballpark home for his entire peak. There is a very chance his years in Texas were just that: his peak.
He makes contact at a below-average rate, which is okay for a power hitter, but he doesn’t walk much. There is plenty of reason for concern as to the longterm viability of Nelson Cruz as an everyday player.
This, of course, hinges on getting Cruz’s price and years down into something a little more realistic but don’t sleep on the value of home runs. Everybody needs them, now more than ever.
The people love their power hitters. Fans and front office types alike both thirst for power, especially from the right side of the plate. And while the upside of Cruz isn’t appealing, there is value in adding a legit power bat if you’re one of the three teams listed below.
3. Baltimore Orioles
This is the part where we laugh about the Orioles reaching a deal with Cruz only to back out at the last minute. If, somehow, the Orioles can get Cruz’s name on a contract without getting colder feet than that well-known actress from that rom com you watched on a plane once, they could make good use of Nelson Cruz’s skills and abilities.
See, the Orioles have a very real need for a left-fielder for 2014. Additionally, they will need to replace Nick Markakis when he becomes a free agent next winter.
Adding a big right-handed bat to compliment (not protect) Chris Davis and Adam Jones should remain high on the Orioles priority list. J.J. Hardy is an unexpected source of power who also is a free agent after next season, meaning more home runs the O’s need to replace.
All these pending departures (Matt Wieters‘ free agency looms in the distance, with just one more arb year remaining after 2014) suggest the Orioles time is now. They have a nice future with Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado (returned to his rightful home at short)
2. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers tiptoed into “sexy pick” status over the last few weeks. Signing Matt Garza, welcoming Ryan Braun back into the mix, as well as emergent star Carlos Gomez provide a few sources of optimism in Wisconsin.
There is the matter of Khris Davis, a young outfielder who provided some nice offense for the Brewers during Braun’s “absence” in 2013. Davis posted a lovely .279/.353/.596 with 11 home runs during a 60-ish game trial with the big club.
Now, Davis is young in terms of experience but he is actually 26-years old, hardly a young up-and-comer. His minor league numbers were stellar at all levels, and even if he comes back to Earth in 2015, how much less will he produce compared to Cruz?
Otherwise, Cruz is a great fit for the ballpark and fills a need for the club – though it’s a club doing everything it can to wash away the stain of Braun’s PED suspension.
Cruz offers talents the Brewers need at a price they’re unwilling to pay. The money they gave to Garza is one thing but the draft pick compensation plus PED stink still means Milwaukee is unlikely to take this step, however dangerous he makes them in a competitive division.
1. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners already made their big splash this winter, signing Robinson Cano to an absurdly long and absurdly lucrative contract. Signing Cano, however, did not unmake them the Mariners. It did not instantly turn Michael Saunders into something he isn’t, same with Dustin Ackley (though it pretty effectively put an end to Ackley’s time as a second baseman.)
Some serious holes remain in the Mariners lineup, holes that Nelson Cruz can surely fill.
As an aging and immobile outfielder, Cruz is tailor made for Jack Z’s team. Jokes aside, the Mariners have a lot of young players in their mix and resigning themselves to a fate that they’re all busts seems defeatist. Mike Zunino, Kyle Seager, Brad Miller, Jesus Montero – there is a chance some of all of these players step forward and make solid contributions in 2014. With Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano in the middle of the lineup, the team would depend much less on these question marks to provide production.
The Mariners have the money and they have the need (to save their GMs job and offset the massive contract given to Cano.) They have pitching depth and positional depth to help the team in trades, but why give up players when you can improve with cold hard cash?
As Jeff Sullivan pointed out at the beginning of the month, there aren’t many places that can be legit homes for Nelson Cruz. With a lower asking price, a few other options enter the market. The smart money might be on the Mariners, who stand to gain the most. Don’t count out a long shot like Houston coming out of the blue and doing with Cruz what the Nationals did with Jayson Werth, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Cruz can help a team on the cusp of contention – power is always in style and the market shows remarkable love for the vaunted right-handed power hitter. It might not end up the best value signing but an extra sniff of the post-season can help justify taking a risky plunge. Wait, is that a sunk cost joke? I don’t even know anymore.