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Orioles sign Nelson Cruz in extended winter shopping spree

Nelson Cruz hit .266 with 27 homers and a .327 on-base percentage in his final year with Texas. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)Nelson Cruz hit .266 with 27 homers and a .327 on-base percentage in his final year with Texas. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

On February's second day, a groundhog in western Pennsylvania poked his head out of his hole, saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter. The Orioles apparently heeded the forecast literally. In baseball, winter is synonymous with the offseason -- one that previously had been marred with curious inactivity in Baltimore -- and the Orioles have made the most of this rodent-forecast reprieve.

Earlier this week, the club signed free-agent starter Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal and now, on Saturday, it has reportedly added free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz for one year and $8 million. (CBSSports.com first wrote that they were close; ESPN Deportes contributed the contractual terms.)

Call it the Baltimore Binge. If and when Cruz is formally on board, the Orioles ought to have filled two major needs: a starting pitcher to help a rotation that had a 4.57 ERA, and a power-hitting leftfielder to bolster a position that managed just a .706 OPS last season; both statistics ranked 12th of 15 in the AL last year. The Binge may not be over, either: CBSSports.com has noted that the Orioles have maintained dialogue with free-agent right-handed starter Ervin Santana.

This activity is what the Orioles needed to do this winter, and perhaps their delay was merely a matter of shrewd negotiating, given that the price tags have fallen considerably on Jimenez and, especially, Cruz. Then again, this is a franchise that revoked offers to free-agent closer Grant Balfour and outfielder Tyler Colvin over their physicals; Balfour’s failure in particular was a matter of medical dispute. Thus, it’s hard to know if the late-term signings of Jimenez and Cruz were part of a systemic plan or a changed approach from either the front office or, more likely, ownership.

The central story is that Baltimore is finally being aggressive in adding the necessary supplementary players to its young core. This was also the case last July, when the O’s made three trades to improve their stretch-run chances; both right-hander Bud Norris and catcher Steve Clevenger remain under team control, though pitchers Scott Feldman and Francisco Rodriguez left as free agents.

With first baseman Chris Davis and catcher Matt Wieters both under team control for two more years before free agency -- when Baltimore will likely be priced out of the market -- the Orioles are looking at a pretty finite period of time to win. Jimenez and Cruz ought to be the antidote for Baltimore’s 2013 woes, though both players carry baggage. Jimenez had pitched poorly for nearly two years before regaining his groove in the middle of last season. It is nothing short of a gamble, though one worth taking for the Orioles. It’s not like they could wait until the rest of the AL East was rebuilding, as the toughest division in baseball never takes a year off.

Cruz’s situation is a bit different given the miniscule price tag and risk. He is the first free agent extended a qualifying offer ($14.1 million) to fare much worse in the end, as he landed a contract worth just 57 percent of that total. Cruz, of course, missed 50 games last season after being suspended for his involvement with the PED-peddling Biogenesis clinic. He only returned for one game -- Texas’ playoff matchup with Tampa Bay for the second wild card -- and went 0-for-4, but that’s hardly any indication of the type of hitter he will be going forward.

Cruz has averaged 27 home runs over the last five seasons but has also played 130 or more games only once. In the last three years, his on-base percentage hasn’t reached .330 and his slugging has topped out at a little over .500, which is good but well short of the .555 mark over 267 games from 2008 through 2010. His strikeout rate has gone up since 2011 and his walk rate has declined. These traits do not portend well for a 33-year-old power hitter who is coming off a PED suspension. He still should be much more productive than the left-field combo the Orioles trotted out last year -- his .808 OPS from 2011-13 is more than 100 points better -- and he’ll be playing in another home ballpark that’s favorable to power hitters.

That Cruz’s contract is only one year is a mixed bag for both player and team. For the player, it’s far less security and guaranteed money than he expected this offseason, but he also now has the chance to re-establish himself and then re-enter the market. For the team, there’s minimal risk in such a short contract, but it’s also less return on the investment of forfeiting a draft pick. They can, however, possibly extend him a qualifying offer next offseason to recoup the draft pick, though Cruz may be inclined to accept such an offer after what he went through this winter.

Once Baltimore made the decision to forfeit its first-round pick (No. 17 overall) to sign Jimenez, however, it made perfect sense for them to sign another player attached to draft-pick compensation, because it only forfeited the 55th overall pick to add Cruz. (After all, Groundhog Day is about repetition, no?) It had previously traded its competitive-balance pick, No. 33, to Houston for Norris. Now that the Orioles have gone this far, signing Santana might also make some sense, as his market has apparently fallen considerably, and the pick Baltimore would forfeit for such a player is No. 91.

It’s rarely advisable to give up so many high draft picks, but the urgency to win now in Baltimore might be worth it. Plus, the Orioles might be able to withstand a fallow draft year. They have the No. 10 farm system in baseball, according to ESPN’s Keith Law, with four pitchers in the top 43 -- Kevin Gausman (No. 23), Dylan Bundy (No. 31), Hunter Harvey (No. 38) and Eduardo Rodriguez (No. 43) -- as well as infielder Jonathan Schoop at No. 86.

Spring training may have started, but Punxsutawney Phil’s decree is that this is still winter, and so the Orioles have taken the second chance to fill their needs.
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