30 April 2014

Should the Orioles Rush to Extend Nelson Cruz?

I have a friend who is an Orioles fan (crazy, I know). Before the season started, he did not want the Orioles to sign Nelson Cruz to a multiyear deal; he was not alone. But with April nearly over and Cruz putting together a great first month of the season, my friend recently tried to persuade me on the O's extending Cruz's contract as soon as possible. This isn't a divisive topic just yet -- I've seen a few people on Twitter calling for an extension, but that's about it -- but it may become one if Cruz continues to mash the ball.

As a refresher, the Orioles signed Cruz to a one-year, $8 million contract that includes $750,000 in incentives. (Per Cot's, Cruz will receive $150,000 each if he's on the roster for 60, 90, 120, 150, and 180 days.) Also, because the O's had already signed Ubaldo Jimenez -- meaning they will sacrifice their first-round pick in the upcoming MLB draft -- they had to forfeit their second-round pick to sign Cruz.

Any argument in favor of keeping Cruz around long term must be centered on his offensive skills. And so far, Cruz has been fantastic at the plate, with a .284/.376/.580 batting line and a .410 wOBA. He's walking a lot (11.9 BB%) and hitting for plenty of power (.295 ISO). He has been exactly what the Orioles needed at designated hitter, although because of players' various injuries and David Lough's offensive woes, Cruz has played in the outfield for 12 games and at DH for 11 games. In 50 DH plate appearances, Cruz is hitting a ridiculous .357/.460/.714. That won't continue, but it's both impressive and a far cry from how Orioles' designated hitters have fared the last several seasons. (Led by Cruz, O's DHs currently have a collective wOBA of .393. O's DHs haven't had a combined wOBA above .332 since 2010 (.356 wOBA), when Luke Scott had a .387 wOBA in 517 plate appearances.)

Right now, according to both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, Cruz has been worth 0.6 wins above replacement. So, depending on how he keeps hitting and if he's able to stay on the field, he could very well exceed the 1.5 WAR mark that would be about the break even point for his contract (assuming that 1 win = $6 million). If he maintains anything close to his current numbers, he'll be worth much more than that. Still, though, that's not factoring in the O's loss of their second-round pick (the value of which varies among writers like Dave Cameron, Dan Szymborski, and others from a few million to much more than that).

But I'm not really sure what the hurry would be to extend Cruz, because things can certainly change quickly. Cruz turns 34 in July, and he's a player who only adds value with his bat. He has been brutal defensively so far while mostly playing left field (-3.2 UZR, -3 DRS). And regardless of how fans feel about them, Cruz was suspended 50 games last season for using performance-enhancing drugs. If he happens to fail another test, he could be suspended for 100 games or potentially an entire season. He is also relatively injury prone, as he has battled both hamstring and quad injuries in the past. On top of all that, there are still other red flags to keep an eye on. These issues matter less because the Orioles have Cruz inked to a one-year deal. But a long-term contract for Cruz would mean taking on substantially more risk.

Cruz has a career wOBA of .355, so it's unlikely that he will maintain his .400+ wOBA April numbers going forward. It's also worth pointing out that besides July (.398 wOBA), Cruz has done his best hitting in March/April throughout his career (.372 wOBA). He is not getting lucky on balls in play (.305 BABIP; .302 career mark); however, he won't be able to keep hitting a quarter of his fly balls out of the ballpark (though he has had a few seasons above 21%).

It's worth wondering how much interest Cruz would have in signing an extension right now. Presumably, his goal is to put up solid numbers this season to build his value back up and find a multiyear deal on the open market. The Orioles potentially offering him a qualifying offer -- which would make sense if they don't plan on re-signing Cruz -- could limit his value yet again, but he also (likely) won't be dealing with another PED suspension. But Cruz won't be getting another five-year, $75 million offer, which he apparently turned down, for some reason, and he will be a year older.

If Cruz does want to avoid another qualifying offer situation, he may be willing to give the Orioles some type of discount. Maybe he likes Buck Showalter or playing in Baltimore, or both. But I find it hard to believe he'd lower his price significantly enough to make the Orioles willing to work out a deal during the season. Also, the O's could wait until the end of the season and still have the luxury of not having to forfeit a draft pick (again) to sign Cruz. I find it hard to believe that they would bid against themselves right now, unless they somehow believe the current version of Cruz is the one that would still be playing for them in a year or two.

Cruz may very well put up monster numbers in an effort to reestablish his value in the open market next offseason. But because essentially all of his value is tied up in his offensive performance -- his power, in particular -- his upside is limited. And even though the O's farm system is essentially devoid of top hitting prospects (other than the currently promoted Jonathan Schoop), it wouldn't be wise for the team to paint itself into a corner with a multiyear deal for an aging DH. Not every DH ages like David Ortiz, and a multiyear deal for Cruz could get ugly in a hurry.

Stats via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. Photo via Keith Allison.


orangeoctober said...

Very good article. Agree 100%. No rush.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that there should be no rush to extend Cruz. While he has certainly performed very well at the plate so far this year, I'm sure you realize that 24 games is not a big enough sample size for WAR to really mean anything. One thing you didn't point out is that he is 33 after all, and there's no guarantee of him performing at this same level for 2 or 3 years. Skeptics could also point out the fact that he could very well be on PEDs right now and if he's caught doing so, his contract would be money wasted. On the topic of Cruz though, I will say I've been very impressed with his defense so far. With Texas, he made a number of foolish mistakes but there's been nothing bad from him this year on the level of Flaherty dropping a routine pop-up in right two years ago. Great post.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Well, yeah. We are all aware of the sample size issues. I don't think anyone expects Cruz to keep hitting at this pace, which I mentioned. Also, I did mention his age and that it's unlikely that he'll age well, and I discussed his defensive issues. He may not be making simple mistakes in the field, but his range is limited at best and he's not a good outfielder.

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Tom said...

Agreed. There is no need for the Orioles to bid against themselves here. That way lies madness, and Ryan Howard contracts. Later in the year, if Cruz is still hitting well, the Os could see if he wants to re-up for a couple years. I'd be hesitant to sign him for more than two, and he might want three or more, figuring this is his last chance to cash in (and it very well might be).