- Some fantasy owners may be scared off by Nelson Cruz's fantasy eligibility. Don't be the one to make that mistake.
Certain player types emerge every February and March as fantasy baseball owners prepare for their drafts and auctions. The specific players who fill those roles change, but the roles themselves carry over from year to year. Identifying the players who fit each archetype before you sit down to build your team can help you find hidden value and avoid impending busts. We’ll take a look at the 10 most identifiable, enduring archetypes in our Player Profile series. In this edition, we consider The Util Usurper: Nelson Cruz of the Seattle Mariners.
Every fantasy baseball league uses at least one utility spot. While the spot gives you the freedom to further ignore positions at the beginning of a draft and instead focus on players who will accumulate big numbers, most owners like to have some utility flexibility. It’s nice to find players who can shuffle in and out of the position, based on current team needs. For almost every player in the majors, this isn’t a problem. No matter what position a guy plays, so long as he plays one, he can bring his owners some measure of utility flexibility. This is not true for one class of players: designated hitters. And one of those players asks fantasy owners to sacrifice that flexibility early in the draft, which presents a conundrum. Is Nelson Cruz worth it?
I call Cruz the Util Usurper because there’s no other spot for him on a fantasy team. He played just five games in the outfield last season, meaning he lost eligibility out there in nearly every fantasy league. If you draft Cruz, you essentially give up your utility spot. If he’s healthy, he’s in it, and you won’t be able to move pieces around as your team’s circumstances naturally change with the rhythm of the season. So, again, is he worth it? Yes, and without a shadow of a doubt.
This is an easier question to answer for owners in leagues with two utility spots, but even those of you in one should be clamoring for Cruz at his 52.79 average draft position. You may not have noticed since he plays on the West Coast and hasn’t been in the playoffs since his one year with the Orioles in 2014, but he has basically turned into David Ortiz. Over the last four seasons, Cruz has a slash line of .287/.359/.549 with 162-game averages of 44 homers, 111 RBI and 96 runs. The year-by-year numbers have been just as good. In those four seasons, Cruz has ranged between 39 and 44 home runs, and 93 and 119 RBI. His lows across the triple slash all came in 2014, when he hit .271/.333/.525. In the other three seasons, all three that he has been a Mariner, he hasn’t hit worse than .287, posted a lower OBP than .360, or slugged less than .549. The guy has been a rock.
When David Ortiz was entering his age-40 season, there was some concern that he’d be able to keep it going after hitting an age where few people still see the inside of an MLB clubhouse. My question at the time was, simply, why? If he did it at 37 and 38 and 39, why should we be concerned that he’d suddenly fall off a cliff at 40. Ortiz went on to deliver the greatest age-40 season, and quite possibly the best age-35-plus season, in MLB history, and then called it a career. Cruz could one day match him.
There is nothing in Cruz’s advanced-stats profile that suggests he’s slowing down. He cut his strikeout rate to 21.7% last year, two percentage points better than the previous season, while amassing a career-high 10.9% walk rate. He ranked 14th in the majors in hard-hit rate, and 29th in soft-hit rate, while keeping his whiff rate flat at 13.7%. The bat speed is still there.
I could probably prove Cruz still has power in abundance by pointing you to his 39 homers and calling it a day, but let’s go a little further. His isolated slugging percentage was .261, right in line with the previous two seasons, and 18 points higher than his career mark. His average fly ball distance was 338 feet, a bit of a drop from 340 feet in 2016, but a two-foot difference, which comes out to 0.5%, is statistically insignificant. His HR/FB ratio was 22%, good for 21st in the majors, and eighth among players with a fly-ball rate of at least 40%. There’s still a whole lot of pop in Cruz’s bat.
Players like Cruz are in short supply once you get to pick No. 45 or 50 in most fantasy drafts. It would take a sudden, sharp skills deterioration for him to come up short of .270/.350/.520, 35 homers and 100 RBI, and, remember, those are floors. Cruz may be the Util Usurper, stealing the position from everyone else on your team and robbing you of a little flexibility, but your acquiescence will be worth it.