Seattle Mariners Sign Nelson Cruz


Last year there was one move that everyone saw coming from a mile away: the Seattle Mariners were going to sign Nelson Cruz, and nothing was going to stand in their way. It would be Cruz for $100 million, if that’s what it took. But then ownership reportedly got in the way, and Cruz settled for a one-year deal with Baltimore. The offseason’s biggest inevitability didn’t even happen.

Fast forward one year and 40 home runs, and Cruz was again a free agent. This time the Mariners interest was said to be tampered by a maybe-real-but-maybe-not-real team policy on players with PED ties, one which forced them to back out of an agreed-upon deal a year ago. It’s said Cruz and the Mariners have once again agreed to a free agent deal. This time, nobody’s backing out.

The inevitability didn’t have a name this time around, but it was clear the Mariners were going to get a power-hitting righty bat to plop into the middle of their lineup. Cano-righty slugger-Seager was the plan, and that was going to be the reality, no matter what it took. Nelson Cruz is the name, as of his signing this morning.

Cruz is getting a four-year deal worth $57 million. Rather exorbitant for a 34-year-old DH, no matter how many home runs he hit a year ago. Cruz provides value in exactly one way: power hitting. He is a zero on defense, doesn’t move fast on the bases, and has missed plenty of time with injuries, to say nothing of his PED suspension. He walks at a league-average clip, while his career BABIP is .299, which is also league average.

ISO is where we see Nelson Cruz emerge as a valuable ballplayer, one who was worth 3.9 WAR last year. Cruz slugged .525 in 2014, with a .254 isolated slugging percentage. For his career, Cruz has a .232 ISO, so last year’s power spike was less a “spike” and more a talented hitter at or near his peak. By this measure, Cruz was the seventh-best power hitter in baseball last year.

But getting back to that whole “34-year-old DH” thing. This is a scary contract not because of the one thing Cruz does, but because of the many, many things he does not do. You know who else provided 100% of his value from swatting bombs? Kendrys Morales, that’s who. He was on the Mariners last year. Remember what that was like? Remember how his power disappeared and all that was left was the worst everyday player in the major leagues?

Cruz was the riskiest available player, given his expected contract and potential for disastrous decline. For almost $15 million a year through 2018, the M’s are simply hoping to avoid the bad outcomes. If Cruz keeps hitting even kind of like he did last year, this is a fine deal. He’s being paid like a two-win player, after all, and not like the four-win guy he was with the Orioles.

Steamer on Cruz: 119 wRC+, 1.5 WAR in 637 2015 PAs. That’s pretty unexciting, and one notes that’s the same wRC+ projection as the younger-and-cheaper Billy Butler. A win and a half shouldn’t cost $15 million, and that’s just in year one of the deal. But then again, Steamer sure as hell didn’t see Cruz as a major contributor a year ago. He turned in a great season in spite of his projections. Steamer’s good, but projections never tell you what’s actually going to happen.

For now, the sense is that Cruz is signed to a contract that overvalues his right-handed pop. That makes sense, since the Mariners famously value this skillset more than probably any other team. Cruz is the exact player they were looking for, and since payroll does indeed appear to be going up, what’s the harm in overpaying for the team’s ideal target?

We haven’t even mentioned the best part of this signing yet, other than that it fills a big hole in the lineup while also creating a little balance. Those are important, but not as important as holding on to the team’s best young talent while improving the big league club. And by taking a risk on the free agent market, the M’s may have done just that.

Despite a Bob Dutton report that the M’s are still looking for a right fielder following Cruz’s signing (good news), this deal does dramatically lessen the possibility of a trade for Matt Kemp or Justin Upton. With Cruz’s bat in the lineup, the team can go searching for an outfielder who doesn’t fit the mold of what they just acquired in Cruz. Which means they won’t have to pursue expensive trade targets. Which means they won’t have to give up any of their young pitching.

The biggest fear of recent years has been a Taijuan Walker trade. He’s young, he’s immensely valuable, and he’s the kind of piece that could bring the M’s back the righty slugger of their dreams. Having signed such a slugger on the open market, the Mariners now have no need to entertain trade offers for Walker or James Paxton. Cruz only cost money, and while he cost a lot of money, buying players with money is far preferable to buying players with young talent.

Given the economic state of the game, this contract is unlikely to ever become crippling (even if it turns out to be a crappy deal). Between this and the Kyle Seager extension, it appears the M’s payroll is going to soar past the $115 million mark. Fans have to love this – it’s been a possibility for a while, and now that the time’s right with the team in contention, the funds are there. No more griping about ownership, since they’ve ponied up extra funds to help their talented club get even better.

Welcome to Seattle, Nelson Cruz. It’s cool that the Mariners found a right-handed bat for the middle of their lineup. It’s cool that they’re still looking to find a more defensively-oriented player to complement their outfield. It’s cool that the team doesn’t appear to have a batty no-steroids-no-way-not-now-not-ever policy. And it’s cool that a big free agent chose to come to Seattle. Make yourself at home, Nellie. Oh, and hit a bunch of homers. We like those.