The Mariners finally have a righthanded power hitter, signing Nelson Cruz to a four-year, $57 million deal. But can his bat overcome his flaws and age?
Nelson Cruz has come to terms with the Seattle Mariners on a four-year contract worth $57 million, according to Yancen Pujols of the Dominican newspaper El Caribe. The major league leader in home runs this past season with 40, Cruz will give the Mariners a much-needed injection of righthanded power as their designated hitter, though expecting a repeat of what was a career year for the 34-year-old in 2014 would be a mistake.
The Mariners had expressed interest in Cruz last winter, but the combination of the draft pick compensation attached to his price (due to his having declined a qualifying offer from the Rangers) and his late-2013 suspension for involvement in the Biogenesis scandal killed his market. As a result, he remained unsigned when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training and ultimately settled for a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles in late February.
His monster 2014 season, however, changed things significantly. Cruz again was extended and declined a qualifying offer this November, but that proved no obstacle for a player coming off a year in which he hit .271/.333/.525 (140 OPS+), with 108 RBI and those MLB-best 40 homers, leading to a seventh-place finish in the American League Most Valuable Player voting. Cruz also re-affirmed his status as an all-time great postseason hitter this October, hitting .357/.400/.607 with a pair of home runs in seven games, pushing his career postseason line to .292/.347/.669 with 16 home runs in 167 plate appearances (a 64-homer pace over 162 games).
Cruz is unlikely to replicate his 2014 season in Seattle for a variety of reasons. His new home is the biggest obstacle. Safeco Field, despite having the fence in left-center brought in ten feet prior to the 2013 season, is a challenging ballpark for righthanded power hitters. That's due in large part to its low elevation; Seattle's thick, sea air; and to a prevailing wind pattern that tends to knock down fly balls hit to leftfield when the stadium's retractable roof is open. Per the Bill James Handbook, over the past three years, the righthanded home run park factor in Camden Yards has been 107. In the two seasons since the fences were moved in in Seattle, Safeco's righthanded home run park factor has been 93.
In addition to that, Cruz's 40 home runs in 2014 were seven more than his previous career high, his 108 RBI were 18 more than his previous best, and his 140 OPS+ was his highest mark since 2010, his age-29 season. Cruz will turn 35 on July 1. The chances of him replicating his 2014 numbers in Seattle would seem to be slim to none.
That does not mean, however, that he won't be a valuable member of the Mariners' lineup. The Mariners have displayed a perplexing preference for sluggers on the far left side of the defensive spectrum in recent years, from Jason Bay, Raul Ibañez and Kendrys Morales to Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, and Morales again. However, they have since parted with all of those players save for Morrison, who has taken over first base from failed prospect Justin Smoak, who was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays at the end of October. As a result, the team had an opening at designated hitter, which Cruz, a liability in the field, should fill perfectly, both by virtue of his potent bat and the fact that he swings it from the right side of the plate.
Prior to Cruz's arrival, the Mariners were heavily lefthanded. Their two best hitters, Robinson Cano and the recently-extended Kyle Seager, are southpaws, as are Morrison and corner outfielders Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders. Catcher Mike Zunino offers some righthanded power, but is also coming off an age-23 season in which he hit .199 with a .254 on-base percentage, the latter spiked by his league-leading 17 times hit by a pitch. Of the three righties in the Mariners' projected 2015 lineup before Cruz, two — Zunino and shortstop Chris Taylor — are heading in to their age-24 seasons. That leaves centerfielder Austin Jackson, coming off a career-worst year at the plate and a brutal showing in a Mariners uniform after his trade-deadline acquisition (.229/.267/.260 in 236 PA), as the only established righthanded bat in the Seattle order.
Cruz is exactly the kind of productive veteran righthanded bat the Mariners need, and per Jay Jaffe's calculations in this space a little more than a week ago, the contract they gave him is exactly what he's likely to be worth over the next four years. Yes, the Mariners also surrendered their top draft pick in 2015, but with the A's having just traded their best player and heading toward an apparent rebuild, the Rangers still in disarray after a disastrous 2014 season, and the Astros still looking beyond the coming season, the Mariners, who missed a wild-card berth by a single game in 2014, have correctly identified this as their moment to make a push toward their first playoff berth since 2001. Cruz is a player who can help them get there, and one they'll be glad they have if they do.