24 October 2014

Why Alejandro De Aza Will Be More Valuable Than Nelson Cruz in 2015

Photo by Keith Allison

Nelson Cruz had a great 2014 season for the Orioles. He brought stability to a lineup that never once saw Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis all on the same lineup card. It's fair to say that the signing worked out better than anyone expected. Cruz was the 17th most productive hitter in MLB with a wRC+ of 137. Despite being a pretty awful fielder, Cruz's 3.9 fWAR was good for 39th among all non-pitchers. While projections suggest, unsurprisingly, that Cruz is due to regress in 2015, it's certainly a real possibility that he could again be one of the better hitters in the league.

As a pending free agent, Nelson Cruz is going to be looking for a payday. The Orioles will almost certainly extend him a qualifying offer of $15.3 million and he will almost certainly decline it. I'd be fine if Cruz came back by accepting his qualifying offer, but the chance of that is remote. Jon Shepherd, he of Baseball Prospectus fame, recently tweeted about what a Cruz extension may look like. And it's been rumored Cruz is seeking an even longer deal.

I suppose I could live with Jon's suggested numbers, but I side with him in that I'd shy away from this type of deal. Cruz is a nice addition to the middle of any lineup and seemed to fit in well in the clubhouse. But the Orioles are a team that thrives off of finding good values, as opposed to paying market value for a top-flight free agent. This strategy is how Cruz ended up here in 2014 for an $8 million bargain. I don't think it makes sense for a team with a mid-level budget, with a lot of arbitration cases this off-season and important contract decisions looming next off-season, to sign a 34-year-old due for regression to a big, multi-year deal. It would make much more sense for the Orioles to look for the next Cruz (or the next Delmon Young) than to pay the money it will take to retain him.

So, how will the Orioles replace Cruz's production? Well, there isn't a simple answer to that. I would imagine LF/DH will be covered by Alejandro De Aza, Steve Pearce (who will also see some time at 1B), and likely a player brought in that fits the Duquette mold of Cruz, Young, Nate McLouth etc. Orioles fans worried that these names won't replace the production of the reigning MVO should also bear in mind the benefit of having Wieters and Machado healthy, as well as Davis likely having a bounce back year, at least to some degree.

But, the real value for the Orioles will be replacing Cruz's innings in LF with De Aza. Please note the word value. In other words, the most bang for their buck. Let's just focus on next year, assuming Cruz will make around $15 million. In doing this, I'm not bringing up the future years and dollars it will take to retain an aging Cruz, which would only further support my claim that De Aza is a better value than Cruz. De Aza is due for salary arbitration this off-season, his third year. MLB Trade Rumors releases very accurate arbitration figures each off-season, but the figures for this year aren't out yet. This past season, De Aza made $4.2 million. While admitting I'm well out of my area of knowledge, let's estimate De Aza gets a 50% bump to $6.3 million. To instead employ Cruz, and his $15 million salary, as your everyday LF, Nelson would have to be worth just over a win more than De Aza.

Last season, Cruz (3.9 fWAR) was worth 2.5 more wins than De Aza (1.4). This was in a year when Cruz, at age 34, had his best season since 2010, and De Aza had his worst year in the Majors. So, while a repeat of last season would make the additional money for Cruz well worth it to the Orioles, are we really ready to bank on such an extreme happening again? Taking a look at Steamers 2015 projections would be helpful here.

‘15 Steamer Projection
De Aza

De Aza is not only projected to be more valuable in 2015, but more productive, too. While Cruz is projected to be the more productive hitter, De Aza's above-average offense, combined with his defense that is far superior to Cruz's, projects him to be worth 0.3 fWAR more than Cruz. 

Some may then suggest that Cruz should be brought back to DH, which is something I'd balk at paying Cruz big, multi-year bucks for. With De Aza in LF on a regular basis (although probably not vs. lefties), the Orioles have the option of playing Pearce or Davis at DH, both cheaper alternatives. Here's how the production projections looks for the DH options.    
‘15 Steamer Projection

While Cruz will be a productive hitter in 2015, the Orioles cheaper options at DH are projected to be even more productive. And this doesn't even address their salaries (which are further reason to use Pearce/Davis) or the fact that Duquette is all but certain to bring in cheaper options off the scrap heap with something to prove. 

Nelson Cruz is a very good baseball player. His production in 2014 was vital to the Orioles. He will be an asset to whatever team he plays for in 2015. But the Orioles are a team that thrives on contracts that are of good value to the club. With Cruz looking to be paid for his 2014 production, his 2015 (and beyond) contract will not be as good of a value as it was in 2014. And that's okay, the Orioles will be fine without him. While there's certain to be more roster shuffling in the off-season ahead, the Orioles already have De Aza, who will be a better value in 2015 than Cruz. 


Philip said...

Pat, I thought that De Aza was considered a good defender. He had about 3 DRS and a good UZR. At Fangraphs his 2014 produced a positive DWAR, if I read the stats correctly.
He's not nearly the defender that Lough is, but I thought he was at least above average?
In other news, because Lough and De Aza have the same skill set and Lough is far cheaper, is there an argument for keeping Lough, despite his lousy batting?

Pat Holden said...

Yeah, De Aza is a good defender. Did I mistype something in the post?

I think Lough could be back as a 4th OF. He's cheap and is a good glove/speed option off the bench. I hope he's back.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

De Aza is a good but not great defender in left field. That negative projection is based on FanGraphs' positional adjustments. Read more about that here: http://www.fangraphs.com/library/misc/war/positional-adjustment/

Pat Holden said...

Oh, the negative Def, right.

Thanks, Matt.

Philip said...

Thanks for the clarifying.
Buck prefers excellent defense, and aside from a strong and accurate arm, Cruz offers nothing defensively.
So I bet Buck would really prefer to have De or Lo out there.
I am assuming that Markakis will return in a platoon role, and he and Pearce will share time in RF, but I hope that Lough and De Aza return. I can't really imagine anyone paying De Aza 5+ million bucks, though, even if thats in line with his WAR.
How about a Non-tender and a resign for less money? Would DeAza be likely to accept that?

Matt Kremnitzer said...

De Aza might not have a choice, but if he is non-tendered, obviously he can go wherever he wants.

If Markakis does return, I seriously doubt he'd be part of a platoon. He should probably receive more rest, but he'd be playing a lot.

Pat Holden said...

I think De Aza could be non-tendered, but it would be a mistake, in my opinion. He can contribute to this team and while his salary may seem a little bloated due to his down year last season it's still very affordable.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone check to see how De Aza is perceived in the clubhouse? Cruz is well liked but questions about De Aza remain. Perhaps D2 goes with a Cuban in left.

Pat Holden said...

Anon, No idea how he's perceived in the clubhouse, but I imagine he would have been left off the postseason roster if there had been any noteworthy issues.

Anonymous said...

Lough doesn't appear to be receiving proper consideration. He's younger, the superior defender, and put up significantly better offensive numbers in the second half. Receiving a draft pick for tendering Cruz, and trading De Aza would appear to be the greatest value.

Pat Holden said...

I think it would be a mistake to count on Lough to be anything more than a 4th OF He's 28 and never had more than 335 PA's in a season. The depth of a team that as Lough penciled in as part of their starting OF would worry me.