Mariners may be closing in on Cruz, but they should sign Morales instead
According to a report on Tuesday from CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, the Mariners are in talks with Nelson Cruz, the last big outfield bat on the free agent market. In recent days, both The Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo and ESPN's Jim Bowden listed Seattle as Cruz's top suitor, with Bowden adding on Monday that the Mariners and Orioles are the leading contenders for both Cruz and the other major remaining free agent slugger, Kendrys Morales.
The rumor mill has pointed to those two teams as the most likely landing spots for Cruz ever since the Rangers took themselves out of play by signing Shin-Soo Choo in late December, but while Seattle could indeed use another big bat, it would seem to make very little sense for the club to pursue Cruz with Morales still on the market.
Admittedly, the Mariners roster already contains an excess of first basemen, with the team having added Corey Hart and Logan Morrison this offseason to join incumbent Justin Smoak. Hart could at least break up that logjam some by playing rightfield, where Cruz is a poor defender and doesn't profile as being any better than Hart. After all, Hart was the Brewers' starting rightfielder for five seasons before moving to first base in 2012, a move made less because of his play in right than because of the team's lack of alternatives in the wake of Prince Fielder's departure (a lack of alternatives that persists to this day). Even in 2012, Hart made 49 starts in rightfield, though he missed all of last season with a pair of knee surgeries. Even with his range likely to be significantly reduced, he's unlikely to be much worse out there than Cruz.
Morrison, meanwhile, has ample experience in leftfield. Given those factors, plus Smoak's presence at first base, it seems fair to consider both Cruz and Morales as designated hitters. When you then adjust their batting records for park factors, a necessary step given that Cruz has spent his career in hitters parks and Morales has spent his in pitchers parks, you find that Morales actually comes out a bit ahead of Cruz.
For example, using the neutralized batting statistics on Baseball-Reference.com, which attempts place all hitters' production in a neutral context with regard to ballpark and lineup, this is how Morales and Cruz compare over the last two seasons combined (home runs and RBIs are per 162 games):
The primary difference there is batting average, in which Morales has an advantage of more than 30 points.
Their neutralized career stats are very similar to the above:
Cruz has more power, as can be seen by how much his slugging percentage exceeds his batting average relative to Morales, but Morales's consistent ability to hit for better averages more than makes up for that, as those averages not only lift his slugging, but his on-base percentage, as well. Even without neutralizing their stats, Morales has hit .275 over the last two years and .280 on his career to Cruz's .263 and .268.
Things tilt further in Morales's favor when you consider that he is three years younger than Cruz, who will be 34 on July 1, and that Cruz is a righthanded hitter while Morales is a switch-hitter. That last is significant because Seattle's Safeco Field devours righthanded home run hitters (just ask Cruz's former Texas teammate Adrian Beltre). According to the 2014 Bill James Handbook, the park factor for righthanded home runs at Safeco from 2010 to 2012 was 67, with 100 being neutral. Safeco suppresses offense in just about every way possible, but it is hardest on righthanded power hitters.
In fact, the Mariners haven't had a righthanded hitter hit 20 or more home runs in a season since Jose Lopez hit 25 in 2009, and the last Seattle righthander to hit 30 or more in a season was Richie Sexson in 2006. Beltre, who has averaged 32 home runs a year in the four seasons since he left the Mariners, never hit more than 26 in a single season when he played his home games at Safeco.
Ironically, the draft pick compensation attached to Cruz and Morales, both of whom declined qualifying offers from their 2013 teams in November, is a non-factor for Seattle. If the Mariners sign Cruz, and Morales signs with another team, the picks cancel out (the Mariners would gain a pick for losing Morales, and lose one for signing Cruz), and if the Mariners re-sign Morales, there's no need for a compensation pick to begin with. In either scenario,Seattle's first-round pick, the sixth overall, remains protected, and its second-round pick is lost as the team already forfeited one selection by signing Robinson Cano. The recent heat on Cruz would suggest he's likely to land a better contract than Morales, about whom the rumor mill has been comparatively quiet. Given Morales's other advantages over Cruz, the only reason for the Mariners to prefer Cruz to Morales is his experience in the outfield. That is to say, Seattle would effectively be paying Cruz for his fielding. Talk about a bad investment.