Can the Orioles Afford to Lose Nelson Cruz?
Anyone could have signed Nelson Cruz this off-season.
Last year, Cruz missed the last 50 games of the season after he was suspended as part of MLB's Biogenesis PED investigation, and no one was interested in taking a chance on him. A lot of that had to do with the fact that the Texas Rangers, his old team, made him a qualifying offer that would have required whatever team signed him to relinquish their first-round draft pick, provided it was not a protected top-10 pick.
Cruz made the miscalculation of turning down Texas' qualifying offer of $14.1 million for 2014, and later signed with Baltimore for $8 million. The Birds had already relinquished their first round pick (number 17 overall) in order to sign free agent starter Ubaldo Jimenez. That did not go well. However, you can bet the Orioles didn't miss the second rounder (number 55 overall) that they had to give up for Cruz, who was simply the best home run hitter in baseball this year.
One year after hitting .266 with 27 homers and 76 RBI in 109 games, Cruz had the best season of his career in 2014, while playing in Camden Yards.
And now, he's their living, breathing, playoff hero.
Cruz' two-run home run in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Tigers in Detroit gave Baltimore all the runs they would need in their series-clinching 2-1 victory. In the brief three-game series Cruz went 6-for-12 with 2 homers, 5 RBI and 4 runs scored, helping lead the Orioles to their unlikely sweep of the Tigers. As a result, the O's will now play in their first American League Championship Series since 1997.
Obviously there's still more work to do for the Orioles. But had they not signed Cruz, it's unlikely they would be in a position for their first trip to the World Series since winning it all in 1983.
Nelson Cruz' free agency is going to be one of the more fascinating cases this season. Cruz led all Major Leaguers in homers this year with 40, was 4th in RBI with 108, his isolated power (ISO) of .254 was 7th, his .525 slugging percentage was 8th and his nERD of 2.20 - meaning a lineup full of Cruzes would have generated 2.20 more runs a game than a league average player - was 24th-best.
He will undoubtedly be the best pure power hitter on the MLB free agent market this off-season (not counting Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas).
Of course, there are reasons teams will once again stay away. The Orioles will likely extend Cruz a qualifying offer, meaning any team without a top-10 protected draft pick will have to surrender their first-rounder in order to sign him. He's also going to be 34 years old in 2015, and given his outstanding 2014 season, will likely be looking for at least a three-year deal, if not more.
In addition, Cruz' defense in the outfield leaves a lot to be desired, ranked 60th out of 76 qualified Major Leaguers in total defense, as calculated by FanGraphs. He's more of a designated hitter than an everyday outfielder, which will limit his likely suitors to American League teams.
Of all the teams in baseball, the O's have the least incentive to offer him a long-term deal. As I mentioned above, they can simply make him a qualifying offer, and if he takes it, he's theirs for another year. But if he doesn't, the Orioles will receive another team's first-round pick (or a second rounder if the acquiring team's first-rounder is protected) and still have Adam Jones (who hit 29 home runs this season), Steve Pearce (21), Chris Davis (26) and Nick Markakis (14), as well as the returning Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and Jonathan Schoop. All of them have the potential to provide above average power from their respective positions.
Virtually every team in the Majors is craving power hitting outfielders. For teams that may just be a hitter or two away, the risks on the back end of a multi-year deal, as well as giving up a first round pick, may just be worth the price of chasing a world championship.
Certainly, Baltimore doesn't mind that trade right now, just four wins away from their first World Series appearance in 17 years.