The slugger is likely in line for a multi-year deal, but is he a poor bet for above-average production in the long term?
The 2014 season was a down year for offense, and particularly for home runs. The rate of longballs fell to 0.86 per team per game, a 10.2 percent drop from 2013 and the lowest such rate since 1972, the year before the designated hitter was introduced. For the first time since 1989, only one player reached the 40-homer plateau, and as it happens, that player, Nelson Cruz, is a free agent. With power suddenly at a premium, what kind of contract can he expect?
Cruz hit .271/.333/.525 (140 OPS+) this past season while playing on a one-year, $8 million contract with the Orioles, a deal that came about via the combination of his 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and a $14.1 million qualifying offer, that he rejected, from his previous team, the Rangers. That one-two punch suppressed his market, not that his age and defensive limitations helped. He's a year further removed from his suspension and coming off career highs in several key offensive categories — including homers, RBIs (108), total bases (322) and Wins Above Replacement (4.7) — but he also turned 34 on July 1, and because he received a qualifying offer from the Orioles, he'll cost his new team a top draft pick.
Before getting to the nitty gritty of his potential contract, a review of the late-blooming slugger's career is in order. Signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Mets in 1998, Cruz was traded twice — to the Athletics in 2000 and the Brewers in 2004 — before tasting the majors in September 2005. Blocked by power-hitting corner outfielders Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins, with Corey Hart on the rise, he was packaged with Lee (a pending free agent) in a deal to the Rangers on July 28, 2006. While he mashed at Triple A, he struggled in major league trials in the remainder of that season and the next, hitting a combined .231/.279/.384 (72 OPS+) in 471 plate appearances. Heading into his age-27 season, Baseball Prospectus 2008 bluntly assessed his career: "[H]e's been given two sizable opportunities with the Rangers and proven each time that he's probably yet another Quadruple-A talent. Cruz is just too much of a hacker and a chaser at the plate, and once big league pitchers realized that, stopped giving him anything to hit."
Ouch. Texas dropped Cruz from the 40-man roster at the end of spring training, but after clouting 37 homers in 103 games at Oklahoma City, he was recalled in August and put up big numbers (.330/.421/.609 with seven homers) in a 31-game trial — good enough to earn a starting job. The Rangers were rewarded for their patience; though Cruz missed time late in the 2009 season, he hit .260/.332/.524 with a team-high 33 homers in 128 games, making the All-Star team along the way. Thus began a five-year run as a middle-of-the-lineup threat for a club that had emerged as contenders, and over the next three years, Cruz helped Texas win two pennants and a wild-card while hitting .277/.332/.508 with an average of 25 homers per year.
Recurrent hamstring strains in both of Cruz's legs cut into his time; he played in 108 games in 2010 and 124 in 2011 while making a combined five trips to the DL. While he hit well in the postseason — setting an ALCS record with six homers against the Tigers in 2011 — he gained infamy that same year for misplaying a potential World Series-clinching fly ball off the bat of th Cardinals' David Freese into a game-tying triple, though the fault was as much that of manager Ron Washington for keeping him in the game. The Rangers lost both that game and Game 7.
Though he set a career high with 159 games in 2012, Cruz's stats took a dip, but he rebounded in 2013, and had hit 27 homers through 112 team games before being pinched due to his connection to the Biogenesis clinic. Having served his suspension, he was allowed to return for Texas' Game 163 play-in, but went 0-for-4 in the loss to the Rays, thus ending his career with the Rangers. He received a cold shoulder from the free agent market, and while at one point he agreed to terms with the Mariners for roughly $7.5 million for one year with a $9 million option for 2015, ownership rejected the deal due to the PED factor.
Cruz signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles on Feb. 24, and while his season was an uneven one — 20 homers and .315/.383/.675 through May, but just 15 homers and a .214/.283/.398 showing over the next three months before a torrid September — he helped them to their first AL East title since 1997. His postseason heroics continued with a Division Series-clinching homer in Game 3 off the Tigers' David Price.
Cruz spent more time at DH (89 games) than at any other position in 2014, by far the most at that spot of any season in his career. Still, despite the perception that he is a bad defensive player, he was three runs above average in 70 games at the two outfield corners according to Defensive Runs Saved, and just three below in 2013. He's at -9 DRS for his career, with a -13 showing in 2012 sticking out like a sore thumb among otherwise competent performances. Meanwhile, he's 16 runs above average for his career according to Ultimate Zone Rating, but about seven below average for his past three seasons. All of which suggests that we shouldn't project him as a full-time DH in establishing his baseline performance.
Breaking out my model — which incorporates past performance, a projection of future performance, the market cost of a marginal win, inflation and aging based on top research in those areas — and using a simple 5/4/3 weighting with the most recent season valued the most heavily, Cruz’s expected baseline for 2015 is 2.9 WAR. While he's been otherwise healthy from 2012-14, playing 159 games in those bookended seasons, the 50 games he missed due to suspension in 2013 can be seen as a proxy for his long injury history; after all, he has averaged just 131 games per year over the past six seasons.
Using 2.9 WAR as a starting point, with an immediate and age-appropriate decline of 0.5 WAR per year, a $6.0 million estimate of the 2014 cost per win and a 5.4 percent rate of inflation, here's a first-blush four-year projection:
That's… not great. Based on his past history, Cruz is projected to be about as valuable over the next four years as he was over the last four (9.0 WAR), and less than twice as valuable over that span as he was in 2014 alone. Then again, that was not only a career high, but it was also one of only two times he’s exceeded that baseline. The other came in 2010, a season that's ancient history as far as my model is concerned. I could split the difference in his recent DRS and UZR totals, but that only adds about one run per year to the baseline, pushing him to 8.9 WAR and $59.7 million over the four-year span. If I do that and reward him for his recent durability by projecting him for 650 plate appearances instead of the weighted average of 595, the baseline climbs to 3.1 WAR, and the totals to 9.5 WAR and $64 million.
All of that is without considering the possibility of Cruz transitioning to full-time DH duty somewhere along the way, which — factoring in the 7.5 run per year position penalty for a shift from an outfield corner to DH but zeroing out his fielding rating — knocks an extra 0.4 WAR per year off the baseline. Supposing under that 3.1 baseline scenario that he converts midway through the deal, that yields WARs of 2.6, 1.7 and 0.8 en route to 8.3 WAR and a value of $55.4 million. Go from that high point and use a more aggressive decline of 0.6 WAR in addition to the shift and his value drops to $51.1 million.
In other words, it takes a very optimistic projection to get Cruz above $60 million over four years, and a more realistic one puts him in the $55-60 million range. That's less than the $70 million figure predicted by MLB Trade Rumors and connected to him via a variety of reports, and a bit higher than the four-year, $68 million deal Victor Martinez signed with the Tigers last week. Martinez is coming off a career year, too, but has a stronger track record, with a lifetime 126 OPS+ to Cruz's 118, and 10.3 WAR over the past four years despite missing an entire season due to knee surgery. Compare the two on a per-150 game basis over that four-year window, and the edge in WAR is 3.4 to 2.5 in V-Mart's favor.
Cruz has at least two suitors in the Orioles and Mariners, the same pair that vied for his services back in February. Baltimore general manager Dan Duquette said earlier this month that he has the financial flexibility to sign both Cruz and outfielder Nick Markakis, but has reportedly offered the former just a three-year deal, with Cruz said to be seeking five. The M's — who might have made the playoffs had they signed Cruz — no longer view the PED issue as a stumbling block, and are desperate for a righthanded bat.
Will other teams make a play for Cruz? It's difficult to imagine an NL team signing him given at least the perception of his defense, and Boston (David Ortiz), Cleveland (Nick Swisher or Carlos Santana), Detroit (Martinez) and Oakland (Billy Butler) have DHs in place. The Yankees have enough aged players for a rotating DH cast, and bigger spending priorities as well. The Angels likely don't have the appetite for such a big contract, and the Rays can't afford him. The Royals, who need to replace Butler, make sense, though it's almost certain they won't pay Cruz what he's looking for. The White Sox, who have Jordan Danks and Dayan Viciedo penciled in as their leftfielder and DH, need to improve, but their last four-year deal to an aging slugger (Adam Dunn) turned out poorly. A reunion with Texas would make sense, and because the Rangers have a protected first-round pick for finishing with one of the 10 worst records in 2014, Cruz would only cost them a second-rounder. However, they might want to park Prince Fielder in the DH spot soon enough. The Blue Jays — who lost their top pick with the Russell Martin signing — could be in play if they lose out on Melky Cabrera, but they've got other glaring needs as well.
It wouldn't be a surprise if one of the aforementioned teams enters the fray, but until one does, Cruz’s market will likely be limited, giving him a similar choice to the one he made last year. He'll get a multi-year deal this time, but don't expect it to be significantly beyond four years and $60 million, and even that will require some rose-tinted glasses to justify.