Earlier today, Enrique Rojas of ESPNDeportes.com reported that Nelson Cruz, who had previously turned down a 5 year, $75 million offer from the Mariners earlier this offseason, had agreed to a 1 year, $8 million contract with the Orioles, pending that all important physical. This is one of the most intriguing deals of this offseason, with far reaching implications that affect a number of players and teams throughout Major League Baseball. Unlike many major deals in baseball, the Nelson Cruz signing carries with it several clear-cut winners and losers.
Baltimore Orioles: Before this week, the Orioles offseason looked like a huge disappointment, with their only major signing, Grant Balfour, failing his physical despite being apparently in good health and signing with a division rival. However, the Orioles managed to cram an entire offseason into a week and a half, signing Ubaldo Jimenez as well as 27-year old Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon. Now, they have added Cruz, a right-handed slugger who fits in nicely in left field and designated hitter, two holes for the Orioles. While Cruz has discouraging splits away from The Ballpark Formerly Known As Rangers Ballpark in Arlington (he has a .911 career OPS at RBIA, versus a .734 OPS on the road), Oriole Park is a hitters’ park as well — in 21 career games at Camden, Cruz has hit .333/.368/.481 with 2 home runs. And since the Orioles had already given up their first-round pick by signing Jimenez, they gave up only a second-rounder and the $8 million to add the 33-year old Cruz on a one year deal.
Seattle Mariners: According to Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, the Mariners offered Cruz a deal in December for 5 years and $75 million, which he proceeded to turn down. As HardballTalk’s D.J. Short commented at the time, “If anything, Cruz might have saved the Mariners from themselves.” The Mariners’ thinking is understandable; they want to build around the newly-minted face of the franchise Robinson Cano and contend for a World Series this year. But adding Cruz would not bring them all that close to that goal. Cruz is a complimentary piece, and nothing more — he has serious flaws in his game, with a low OBP and poor outfield defense, that severely limit his value, even with the home run power. Adding Cruz for $15 million a year until he is 38 would not have been a prudent move for the Mariners, either for the present or the future.
Advanced Statistics: In the 1992 offseason, 33-year old Joe Carter hit the open market with a very similar skill set as Cruz. Carter had a solid batting average, high home run and RBI totals, but played poor outfield defense and drew few walks, limiting his on-base percentage. To that point in his career, Carter had a lifetime .263/.308/.467 triple slash and 110 OPS+, only four points off from Cruz’s 114 career OPS+. Yet for nearly his whole career, Carter was treated like a star, and certainly paid like one — he received a 3 year, $19.5 million contract from the Blue Jays that made him the second-highest paid player in the game. Fast forward twenty years and Cruz, despite having a similar skill set as Carter (same power, same suspect defense and low OBP), can’t even find a job. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances — Cruz has a history of injury (as well as a PED suspension) and is attached to draft pick compensation. But it shows how far we’ve come in the past twenty years that a player like Cruz is no longer treated by front offices as a star.
Nelson Cruz: Obviously. Cruz came into this offseason expecting the kind of contract that would give him financial stability for the rest of his career. As we mentioned, he turned down that 5 year, $75 million offer, and though that might have been delusional of him, nobody expected his stock to fall this far:
Now, instead of coming off a huge payday at age 38, Cruz will have to re-enter the free agent market as a 34 year old, a year older and therefore even less likely to receive the huge payday he’s after. Additionally, Cruz turned down the Rangers’ $14.1 million qualifying offer in order to take his shot at free agency, losing more than $6 million in the process.
All Other Qualifying Offer Recipients: The terms of this offer make it clearer than ever that assigning draft pick compensation to a free agent is akin to a kiss of death. The system, which forces a team to hand over its’ first round draft pick to sign said player, is a non-issue for superstar free agents like Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury. But for mid-level free agents like Cruz, Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Stephen Drew, and Kendrys Morales, losing a draft pick can be too steep a price to pay. The system depresses the market for these players, leaving some (Drew, Morales and Santana) still unsigned deep into Spring Training.
Specifically, Kendrys Morales: As a defense-challenged power hitter tied to draft pick compensation, Morales’ fate was very much tied to Cruz’s. By accepting the one year, $8 million deal, Cruz has set the market for Morales at a much lower cost than Morales expected to receive at the beginning of the offseason. Additionally, Cruz signing with the Orioles takes them off the table as suitors for Morales, limiting the number of teams interested. A few teams — specifically, the Pirates, Royals, and Mets — are rumored to have varying degrees of interest in Morales, but seem reticent to give up a draft pick to sign him. More than likely, Morales will end up back in Seattle (as the Mariners do not have to give up a draft pick to sign him) at a rate lower than the $14.1 million deal he declined back in December.