During the first game of the Mariners/Orioles series at Camden Yards, I was perusing my Twitter feed and came across a conversation between Jon Shepherd and Matt Kremnitzer. They were discussing the frustration that O's fans have had over their team's inability to re-sign Nelson Cruz during the offseason. Their frustration with the organization's lack of major acquisitions this past offseason reached a boiling point when Cruz hit a home run off of Miguel González that night. Meanwhile, Orioles' corner outfielders have all been performing at replacement level this season.
It's easy to overreact when you see that one of the best offensive contributors for your team last season is hitting dingers against that very same team this season. With the AL East being as close and competitive as it has been, one could assume that Cruz could've been a difference maker. However, you can't draw such a conclusion six weeks into the season, and you certainly can't draw conclusions on a four-year contract seven weeks into year one.
Contrary to popular belief, trades and free agent signings are to be evaluated when they are announced. Not during, and not after the contract is up, but before the player's first game is even played. In baseball anything can happen, including good results from bad decisions. The only fair, logical way to evaluate acquisitions is to go by the information that you know at the time. Let's take a look at what we knew about Nelson Cruz when the Mariners signed him.
The Mariners are paying $58 million for the age 34-37 seasons of a player who is a slow, poor outfielder, and is likely to age poorly due to his lack of athleticism. He's basically a DH who is a low OBP, high SLG hitter. I won't go into too much detail as to why I didn't like this deal for the Mariners, suffice it to say that their general manager, Jack Zduriencik, keeps paying for power when his team has finished last in the AL in OBP in four of the last five seasons and were second to last in the other.
By being smarter than Zduriencik, the Orioles avoided paying $58 million to an aging slugger and got a compensation pick in the process. That may be of little consolation to Orioles fans right now, but the thing is that Cruz is grossly overperforming and is going to come back down to earth. Remember him doing the same thing last year? Through May 2014, Cruz enjoyed a 27.9% HR/FB ratio and .324 BABIP, which fueled his outstanding .440 wOBA and 19 HR. Seeing how his career rates consisted of a 16.6% HR/FB and .302 BABIP going into that season, it was obviously unsustainable and proved to be so. From June 1 through the rest of the season, those rates dropped to a 15.9% HR/FB and .272 BABIP, resulting in a .331 wOBA and 20 HR. In other words, he turned back into Nelson Cruz. Not that Cruz playing like himself was a bad thing, especially for only $8 million. It was actually one of my favorite signings prior to the 2014 season.
Cruz is currently hitting .341/.398/.688 with 17 HR, which is good for a .458 wOBA and 2.2 WAR. He's leading the AL in AVG, SLG, HR, Total Bases, and wOBA. His OBP is second only to Miguel Cabrera. He's even better than he was at this point last year, and like last year, it's because of even higher and flukier batted ball stats. He currently has a whopping .376 BABIP and 30.9% HR/FB! This is all without any significant changes to his batted ball rates, too. For how much longer is it reasonable to believe that he's going to continue hitting almost one-third of his fly balls over the fence? Cruz is grossly outperforming even his 90th percentile PECOTA projections of a .351 wOBA by 107 points!
About all those home runs -- let's take a look at the pitchers who gave them up to Cruz. The following numbers are the pitchers' ZiPS projections going into this season.
at Los Angeles
at Los Angeles
at Los Angeles
There are a few good pitchers in there, but overall it's an underwhelming group.
At the time of the signing, Dan Szymborski, who is also an Orioles fan, tweeted out his disdain for the deal. In the tweet, Szymborski included the ZiPS projections for Cruz's years with the Mariners, assuming he'd be their primary DH. Remember that projections are not predictions. They are a measure of true talent level. Here's an excerpt from that table:
While I'm not a fan of the generic $/WAR metrics out there because I believe that they're too oversimplified, $58 million and a first round pick for 4.3 WAR is a pretty bad deal. Furthermore, the ZiPS model may be overestimating the number of games that Cruz will play. He's been a bit injury prone in his career, having played over 130 games in a season only twice. Obviously, getting older isn't going to make that any better. Even with his poor defense, he'd still be an upgrade over the poor corner outfielders that the Orioles have been trotting out there, but it'd come at a high price. By the time his contract enters its third year, Cruz is likely to be just as bad as those guys anyway.
OK, those were the numbers, so now let's take a look at the scouting information. Mark Anderson wrote up a scouting report for Baseball Prospectus this past October. I won't go over it in detail, but I will show the scouting grades. For those of you who are unfamiliar, these grades come from the 20-80 scouting scale.
Nelson Cruz is currently playing like an 80 hitter with 80 power. Those players are incredibly rare. The only player in today's game who fits that description is Miguel Cabrera. There's only a handful of players who fit that description in the past 20 years: Albert Pujols, Manny Ramírez, Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, and...that's it. It truly is a uniquely special talent to be able to combine an 80 hit tool with 80 power. Is it really reasonable to believe that Cruz has turned himself into this class of player over the course of one offseason? I doubt that these grades come as a surprise to anybody who has seen Cruz play. From a qualitative perspective, he has big power but is only a mediocre hitter, and his speed and fielding have gotten to the point where he should be at DH as much as possible.
I hate to have to discuss this, but because somebody is going to bring it up, I don't believe that steroids have turned Cruz into a completely different player. We know for a fact that he's taken them in the past, and if you check his Fangraphs page, you'll see that he's never hit like this before. In fact, his success on the Rangers is better explained through his hard work and openness to instruction. Out of all the admitted steroid users, none of them ever turned from average to Miguel Cabrera overnight.
It is possible that Cruz has found a way to tap into some more power, though at the age of 34 that's highly unlikely. I can, however, absolutely guarantee you that Cruz didn't suddenly become an 80 hitter. Going from a 50 to an 80 hitter requires an enormous increase in the skills required to hit for average. It just doesn't happen outside of young prospects that are still developing.
Matt Kremnitzer did a nice job of explaining the Orioles' corner outfield problem recently. Even a Nelson Cruz performing at his normal levels would be an upgrade over what the team has been trotting out there, but not as much as you'd think. Cruz gives back a good chunk of his offensive gains as a result of his poor defense. He already has a -5 DRS and -7.6 UZR. His poor DRS adds up to a -0.8 dWAR, which is pretty bad for a full season, let alone seven weeks into it.
It's not like the Orioles don't have their own player who is overperforming. I won't go into the same detail that Matt went into when he wrote about Jimmy Paredes, who has taken over for Cruz this season as the team's primary DH for the most part. He currently has a .394 BABIP and 23.1% HR/FB. Those numbers will certainly regress, but thanks to his work with Robinson Canó during the offseason and changes in his approach, it's possible that his true talent level is better than the 73 wRC+ that ZiPS projected going into this season. However, I'm sure that it's nothing close to his current 155 wRC+.
Regardless, depending on whether you're going by Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference, Cruz has only been approximately half a win to one win better than Paredes so far. The reason why that difference isn't larger is the defense. Although Paredes certainly won't be winning any Gold Glove awards, his defense is a full grade better than Cruz's. It's also worth noting that Paredes is making the league minimum. Cruz, on the other hand, is making $12.5 million this season.
So for those of you out there who are still mad at the Orioles for not signing back Cruz, given all the information that I laid out here, let me ask you: Do you really think that Cruz is going to continue hitting like this for much longer? Would you risk four years and $58 million on an aging slugger to find out? Or would you rather just spend the money elsewhere and take the draft pick instead?