Right now, according to Baseball Prospectus's playoff odds report, the Orioles (28-27) have a 28.3% chance of making the playoffs. And according to FanGraphs, the O's have an 18.8% chance of reaching the postseason. Currently in third place in the East, the O's are 4.5 games behind the Blue Jays and tied for just a half-game back of the second wild card spot. The O's are right in the middle of things, so of course it's too early to throw in the towel and start shipping off players to other teams. But it's not too early to at least speculate about a future trade, particularly when it comes to Nelson Cruz and his impending free agency.
So far, Cruz has played above and beyond any realistic expectations. He has not played well defensively (-3.8 UZR, -3 DRS), but that's not what Cruz brings to the table. He's a power hitter -- and he has been crushing the ball (.358 ISO and 20 HR). He's even been a well-rounded hitter so far, not just hitting for power but also routinely getting on base (.314/.384/.672). Cruz's .444 wOBA leads the American League and is third overall in the majors behind Troy Tulowitzki (.470) and Yasiel Puig (.445). After Cruz, the three next closest hitters in the O's lineup are Steve Pearce (.374), Matt Wieters (.364), and Chris Davis (.336).
To this point, Cruz has been the O's best player. And if the Orioles stay within a few games of a wild card spot for most of the season, they won't be looking to deal such an important piece of the team away (as they shouldn't) -- in fact, they may look to add a player or two. (Jeff Samardzija, perhaps?) But let's assume for a moment that something unfortunate happens (sorry), such as the Orioles getting some bad news soon concerning Wieters, meaning he would miss the rest of the season, and they start to fade in the playoff chase. It's unclear how good the O's are without Wieters, and losing him for the rest of 2014 would be a huge blow. The second wild card spot makes it easier for teams to hang around, definitely, but it also may convince some teams that they're better than they otherwise are. Then again, all a team needs for a shot to win the World Series is to just earn one of those wild card spots. And maybe a team closer to that spot than the Orioles talks themselves into acquiring Cruz.
Which potential team could that be? That's not quite as clear at the moment. Because of his outfield limitations, Cruz would likely need to be dealt to an AL team. It's also worth noting that Cruz has limited no-trade protection and may block a trade to eight undisclosed teams. There aren't many great fits, though if Cruz keeps hitting this well, he'd be a clear fit on any team. The Mariners (29-28) and Royals (27-30) could use some help at DH and maybe corner outfield, and it's not impossible that both could stay in the wild card hunt for a while. The Angels (30-26) are playing better than both of those teams, and while they don't really need a DH (C.J. Cron has hit well), Cruz would be an upgrade over their right field platoon of Collin Cowgill and Kole Calhoun. Maybe one or more of those teams would be interested, and maybe not. Or maybe a team that needs a DH would simply target Kendrys Morales instead of sacrificing any prospects.
I asked Jon what type of return the Orioles could receive if they made Cruz available. He said maybe a first-tier guy with some issues (like Mike Olt in the Matt Garza trade last season) or a couple of second-tier prospects. Obviously the Orioles would love to do what the Mets did in 2011, when they traded Carlos Beltran to the Giants for highly regarded pitching prospect Zack Wheeler. (Even though the strength of the farm system is starting pitching, that type of return, though improbable, would be fantastic.) At the time of the trade, the Mets were 54-51, 6.5 games out of the wild card spot (just one of them at the time), and 11.5 games out of first place in the NL East. Like Cruz, Beltran was a free agent after the season, but Cruz doesn't have nearly the same track record that Beltran had. Still, maybe a team that believes it is one piece away would be willing to ship a solid prospect or even two decent ones for a couple months of Cruz's services. (Note: Any team that trades for Cruz would not be able to extend him a qualifying offer.)
A Cruz trade is unlikely, and I doubt it happens. The O's have no obligation to deal him away, and he's a big part of why the team has managed to stay around .500. Still, Cruz turns 34 in July and has several red flags. That's why a one-year deal for him was ideal. He hasn't played this well since 2010, and there's no reason to think he will be able to keep up this pace. That doesn't mean he can't put together an outstanding season, but it doesn't mean the O's should be thinking about handing him a three- or four-year deal, either. And that's one of the options they have with Cruz:
1) They could trade him in July, which would add a prospect or two to the team's farm system this season.
2) They could have him play out his contract and then extend him a qualifying offer. If he accepts, then he'd be in an O's uniform for another season, again on a one-year deal (though for nearly double the $8 million (plus incentives) he signed for this season). If he declines, then the Orioles would receive a compensation pick in the 2015 draft.
3) They could sign him to a longer-term contract (presumably at least two or three years) either during or after the season. (I wrote about the possibility of a Cruz extension a few weeks ago.)
Lots of moving parts will factor in to any decision on Cruz. A midseason slide or collapse could lead to a trade, but Cruz also does seem to be fitting in well in Baltimore, and it's not like the O's have a bunch of position prospects that are going to push Cruz for playing time. As noted previously, some difficult player decisions await the Orioles, including what to do with guys like Chris Davis, Wieters, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, etc. Cruz is just one more piece of the puzzle.
Stats and standings as of June 3. Photo via Keith Allison.