It’s February. Usually by this point in the offseason, fans of a given baseball team can look at the roster and go “okay, yeah,” and have a good idea of what the opening day roster will look like. Indeed, that’s the case with the current Seattle Mariners, who signed Robinson Cano (!!!) and many littler fish while trading a reliever for a designated hitter/defensively limited corner outfielder. Give or take a couple spots on the roster, the 2014 Mariners – or at least the version that will take the field in April – are set. The club is still expected to add a player or two. We all have a good idea of who that player might be.
Nelson Cruz is the hottest name in Marinersland right now, as far as guys who aren’t on the Mariners are concerned. I checked MLB Trade Rumors fifteen seconds ago just to make sure he’s still not on the Mariners and yeah, still not on the Mariners. But it seems like he’s going to be. Cruz is a popular guy amongst many fans, despite his warts. And oh, the warts. He has a lot of warts. He’s 33, is a wart, and last year he was suspended for PEDs, also a wart. His defense sucks and always has. His defense once famously sucked in such a manor that it caused his team to lose the World Series. A google search for “Nelson Cruz loses World Series” yields 540,000 search results. He gets on base at a rather pedestrian clip. Once he gets on base, he’s slow. Yeah, Cruz has his warts.
What Nelson Cruz also has in undeniable power. His isolated slugging percentage over the last three years goes .246, .240, .240. A league average ISO last year was .143, and Miguel Cabrera last year was .288. Nelson Cruz is much more like Miguel Cabrera than most other guys, albeit only in one way. Despite this, his home run totals the last few years have only been 29, 24, and 27. Not bad at all, but those numbers are a little more Kyle Seager than they are Miguel Cabrera. Cruz has one big huge tool, and aside from that, he’s warts. Oh, and he’ll cost a draft pick. Oh, and he’s going to command multiple years and a market-value or higher AAV.
Last year’s godawful Mariners team was highlighted in part by one Kendrys Morales, also a free agent. Morales is a lot like Cruz in that he’s looking to get a high-salary contract for more than one year. He’s also tied to draft pick compensation, and he also sucks at running and defense, if not a bit more than Cruz sucks at those things. But Morales most recently played for the Mariners, meaning if he signs elsewhere the Mariners gain a pick, and if the Mariners themselves re-sign him they neither gain nor lose a pick. It’s hard to imagine the Mariners signing neither Cruz nor Morales, so the pick is really something of a wash. Either they sign Cruz and lose a pick, only to gain one when Morales signs elsewhere, or they sign Morales and the draft consequences vanish.
Point is, the Mariners are going to sign one of these two players. They’ve acknowledged to having dialogue with both over recent weeks, and while Cruz appears more likely, Morales is certainly still in play. The question isn’t if, but when. And who. Mostly the question is “which?”
As mentioned earlier, Cruz is 33. Kendrys Morales is 30. That means Cruz is three years further removed from his prime, and speaking of primes, Morales and Cruz both had their best seasons to date at the same time, in 2009 and 2010. Morales’s 2010, of course, was halted after 211 plate appearances when he shattered his ankle, though up to that point he was nearly matching the pace of his 2009 breakout. The big takeaway here is that these are both guys who were at their best no less than four years ago, but Morales is significantly younger and thus is closer to his prime years. That he lost a year and a half to a wrecked ankle, of course, complicates things, but it doesn’t make him any older.
By OBP, Morales wins, though his .336 mark is acceptable and not outstanding. Cruz, at .327, was a bit less acceptable, but not completely awful. Cruz has the clear power advantage, as he leads Morales by 57 points of slugging and boasts a .240 ISO to Morales’s .171. That’s a huge advantage, and much bigger than Morales’s OBP edge. Morales had the huge injury, but he’s been on the field a lot more the last two years as Cruz has been hurt (and suspended) a few times.
Defensively Cruz has an advantage, or so it would appear. Morales can hardly play the field, and when he does he’s limited to crappy first base defense a few times a week. Cruz is a corner outfielder by name, but by ability he’s terrible. He’s no Raul Ibanez, but he’d become one of the Mariners’ biggest defensive liabilities if/when signed. As a player accustomed to playing the field, he’d be unlikely to accept a DH role. On the surface, Cruz has the defensive edge.
But would Morales really lead to a worse team defense than Cruz? If Seattle resigns Morales to be the everyday DH for the next couple of years, that would all but push Corey Hart and Logan Morrison off the position. The result? Against righties, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart would play in the outfield and at first, depending on whose knees feel better. Against lefties, Morrison sits and Franklin Gutierrez or Abe Almonte or whoever, really, plays right field while Hart mans first. The biggest variable, of course, if health, but the result is that the defense is virtually unchanged from if the team had Cruz in right every day. Cruz blocking Guti, of course, could even make the defense worse, assuming Cruz won’t DH some days. It’s easy to see how the team could accomodate Morales, at the very least.
Over the last two seasons Nelson Cruz has been worth 2.6 WAR. Over the last two seasons Kendrys Morales has been worth 2.9 WAR. Nelson Cruz plays an awful right field, while Kendrys Morales doesn’t play the field. Cruz is bad at running the bases. Morales is awful at running the bases. Cruz is 33. Morales is 30. Both are probably looking for a three year contract, but will likely have to settle for two. Both want about $14 million a year, but will likely have to settle for a little bit less. These two players are more or less the same.
The Mariners are likely to end up with one of them, and really, it comes down to a three year age difference, a PED suspension, and bad defense versus no defense. Neither of these guys will make the Mariners contenders, but one of them will make the Mariners out of spring training. Flip a coin, Jack Zduriencik. As for me, I’ve talked myself out of caring if it’s heads or tails.