Why Signing Nelson Cruz to a 4-Year Deal Was a Mistake for the Seattle Mariners
Contrary to what your parents told you, you actually can learn things from playing video games. The first rule: never operate the off-season of a franchise mode while impaired.
This is what leads you to say, "Ahh, eff it!" and sign that aged, power-hitting free agent to an outrageous deal you would never agree to with a clear mind.
The Mariners front office did this Monday. They drunk-punched the "accept" button on a deal that pays Nelson Cruz $57 million over four years, forcing them to sacrifice the 21st-overall pick in next year's draft. They're mere minutes from simming and re-simming the season until Logan Morrison wins the MVP award.
Although the contract may not make much sense, the signing does. Let's take a peak at both aspects and explain not only why Seattle made the move but also why it probably won't be a worthwhile endeavor in the end.
Why Seattle Signed Cruz
During the 2014 season, the Mariners traded a living, functioning human being for a designated hitter with a .255 wOBA... and it made sense. That's the kind of offense we're talking about here.
The Mariners were the only American League team to have a composite wOBA below .300. The second-worst organization was the Red Sox at .305. This would seem to make any offense welcome offense, and Cruz can certainly bring the lumber.
In his professional career, Cruz has played six seasons in which he has recorded at least 400 plate appearances. In those six seasons, he has had a slugging percentage greater than .500 five times. He was at .460 the other season, which came in 2012.
Although Cruz is fairly awful defensively (he only played 580.2 innings in the field in 2014), he does technically still count as a person that can stand in the outfield in addition to his more prevalent role as a designated hitter. It just so happens that Seattle was reprehensibly putrid at both positions last year!
We'll start with designated hitter, where Cruz would ideally see a majority of his time. In 633 plate appearances last year, Seattle designated hitters reached base 168 times. You don't have to be a division whiz to realize that's less than optimal. Their collective .190/.266/.301 slash is enough to (almost) make Eric Sogard blush.
The corner outfielders were certainly better, but they were not good by any means. The right fielders hit .255/.308/.413 as a whole. That's within at least driving distance of "acceptable." The problem is that the guy who provided a good chunk of this production, Michael Saunders, is reportedly on the trade block. Welp City.
In left, which was largely held down by Dustin Ackley, the M's had a composite slash of .241/.284/.383. Ackley himself hit .245/.293/.398 with a .305 wOBA overall but had a .342 wOBA in the second half of the season as opposed to .275 in the first half.
The need for Cruz was pretty obvious. The team, with their pitching staff, should have easily made the playoffs had they had a mildly competent offense. They did not. Cruz takes them one step closer to having that in 2015. But what about the years after that?
Why the Multi-Year Deal?
It's clear that the Mariners are trying to build an offense for far beyond 2014. Robinson Cano is under contract for another nine years, and they recently (intelligently) signed Kyle Seager to a seven-year extension.
Now, Cruz joins the beyond-2015 club with his four-year deal. The question is why?
With Cano, he's one of the best players in the sport at his position. Not only can he whack it as a second-baseman, but he also plays average to above average defense.
Seager just turned 27 last month. He posted a 5.5 fWAR in 2014 after consecutive seasons above 3.5 previously. Like Cano, he provides both an offensive jolt and stability on defense.
Cruz does not fit this same mold. He is a straight masher and nothing more. Once his hitting abilities diminish, his value will quickly fall off the table. Considering he'll turn 35 on July 1st, that time may not be far off.
Let's look at the second year of Cruz's deal. He will be in his age-35 season. In 2014, only four players 35 or older had a slugging percentage above .450. The same number had a wOBA above .340. Once Cruz falls below those numbers, there's no way he lives up to his annual salary.
If you check out ESPN's Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections, they see Cruz dipping to those numbers in Year 2 in Seattle. If you click on the Tweet below, you should be able to see the projections more easily.
I don't much care for Butler at 3/30, but I prefer it to Cruz 4/57 and pick #21. (+ZiPS in Seattle as DH) pic.twitter.com/4AyM7u5pFg— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) December 1, 2014
As Szymborski noted in the Tweet, these projections are for Cruz as a designated hitter, which is exactly what he should be. Yes, he technically had a positive ultimate zone rating last year with the Orioles, but that was only over the course of 580.2 innings. His UZR was negative each of the previous three years, and it would be again if the Mariners were to try to trot him out there.
ZiPS sees Cruz plummeting to 2.0 WAR in 2014 and just tumbling lower and lower as the contract goes along. That's your $57-million investment, homies! Enjoy!
The Orioles did it right last year: they signed Cruz to a one-year deal, used him to improve their offense that one season, and then moved on. No future hand-cuffs on their roster, no bad money spent, no tears. Just production. It was smart.
The Mariners did the opposite. They will now be restricted by Cruz's contract until the end of the 2019 season, during which Cruz will turn 38. You get the projected improvements in 2015, but at what cost?
When you toss in the 21st overall pick, this deal looks even worse. It's hard to see a scenario in which this works out for the M's. Unfortunately, unlike a drunken video game escapade, there's no reset button on this transaction. There are no "auto-accept" computer trades. They're stuck with Cruz for 2015 and beyond, for better or for worse.