February 24, 2014
Qualifying Offer Helps Orioles, Hurts Nelson Cruz
Agreed to sign DH/OF-R Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million contract. [2/12]
When the offseason started, Nelson Cruz looked like a disaster deal waiting to happen. A below-average fielder and baserunner, Cruz’s power is his only asset of interest, and even that figures to decline as he heads into would be his age-34 season, had he been born a day earlier. (Baseball-Reference defines a player’s seasonal age as his age on June 30th; Cruz will turn 34 on July 1st.) In the past, teams have overpaid for free agents by failing to account properly for park effects, aging, and eroding ancillary skills, and Cruz stood to benefit from oversights in any or all of those areas. When PECOTA spit out Juan Gonzalez—who was done as a productive player after his age-33 season—as Cruz’s top comp, it seemed like a sign.
In November, Jim Bowden predicted that Cruz’s new contract would pay him $48 million over three years; Jon Heyman predicted $64 million over four years, and a GM whose estimate Heyman solicited said four and 60. Cruz himself started out asking for four years and $75 million, which suggests that he and agent Adam Katz had a Heyman-like figure in mind.
Maybe we all overestimated the number of contending clubs with a need for a right fielder/DH, or underestimated teams’ intelligence. Instead of cashing in, Cruz had to settle for $750K more than Chris Young—who didn’t appear on our top 50 free agents list—will make with the Mets. He got only half the guaranteed money that Marlon Byrd—an older, inferior player who like Cruz has a PED suspension in his past—received from the Phillies. The player who looked like a lock to make more than he should will earn less than anyone expected—and, frankly, less than someone with his skills deserved. Cruz turned out to be a bargain.
Those who like to see PED users punished repeatedly won’t cry for Cruz, but realistically, it’s a stretch to tie his contract to his Biogenesis suspension. General managers haven’t acted like moral police in the past, and it’s tough to square the idea that they would in Cruz’s case with the contracts Bartolo Colon and Jhonny Peralta signed this winter. Nor is it likely (one tweet aside) that most teams were worried about a post-PED decline or a second infraction—Cruz’s suspension, like Peralta’s, was for something he took in the spring of 2012, so either he was clean when he hit 27 homers in 109 games last season or he discovered a way to beat the test. It makes more sense to pin the blame on something Cruz didn’t have in common with Cruz and Peralta: the qualifying offer and accompanying draft pick compensation.
Other than Kendrys Morales, who’s still on the market, Cruz was the player most likely to be affected by receiving (and rejecting) the qualifying offer. He isn’t the first free agent who’s had to wait until spring training started to sign because of the draft pick compensation system, but he is the first to turn down a qualifying offer without ultimately making more than he would have if he’d accepted it. According to Heyman, the lack of precedent for the worst-case qualifying offer scenario absolves Katz of any blame:
It’s not necessarily true that no one could have foreseen it; in fact, an agent Heyman talked to for his own contract predictions piece said he expected Cruz to settle for the $14.1 million sum. The outfielder probably wishes he had. Or maybe he wishes he’d accepted another offer: Cruz reportedly turned down multiple multi-year deals—whether out of overconfidence or a belief that next winter would offer a more favorable market—and Winter Meetings scuttlebutt said that he’d rejected a five-year, $75 million offer from the Mariners. (While Cruz may have preferred to play in Baltimore, it’s hard to believe he preferred it to the tune of $67 million.) Given the way this winter worked out, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Cruz decide to switch agents before entering free agency again at the end of the year. Or maybe he’ll represent himself, having learned a valuable lesson: If a qualifying offer comes along, accept it. (Of course, he’s less likely to get one next time around, now that teams know—and know Cruz knows—how he’s valued.)
For now, Baltimore benefits from a system that mostly punishes players and rewards rich teams. (If it’s any consolation to Cruz, his contract might help kill the qualifying offer after 2016.) The Orioles went into last season planning to platoon Nolan Reimold and Wilson Betemit at DH, and they got a .234/.289/.415 line from the position, with most of the power coming from the since-departed Danny Valencia. Rather than rely on Reimold again, the Orioles went for a one- to two-win upgrade from a lefty masher who can hold his own against same-side pitching. PECOTA projects Cruz (with a .282 TAv) to be Baltimore’s second-best hitter, a point ahead of Adam Jones. And with Nick Markakis in right, Cruz may mostly retire his glove, which would make him more valuable and less likely to miss time with one of his many leg muscle strains (the most recent of which, to be fair, came in 2011).
As R.J. Anderson notes, 54 batters posted ISOs over .150 with walk rates under eight percent last season. In Jones, J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters, and now Cruz, the O’s have four of them. Three of those players are products of the Andy MacPhail era, so it’s not as if Dan Duquette has an obvious type, but the O’s—who led the majors in ISO and tied the White Sox with the second-lowest walk rate in in 2013—have committed to the same approach to scoring this season. Fortunately, Camden Yards should prove even more hospitable to Cruz’s power stroke than the Ballpark in Arlington did.
Duquette’s decision to sign Cruz got a lot easier last week, when he surrendered the 17th-overall pick to sign Ubaldo Jimenez. With Ubaldo in the fold, Cruz cost only the 55th pick, which is less than a third as valuable, and there’s at least some chance that the Orioles could get a higher pick out of him at the end of the year. The O’s took a lot of flak this winter for waiting as long as they did to do something, but Duquette did live up to his promise to spend, making a team that needs to contend now at least a little more likely to do so. And in the case of Cruz, waiting out the market proved to be a shrewd move. —Ben Lindbergh
Cruz is at the age and experience level where maintaining previous production levels is a win. The context surrounding him won’t have a huge impact on his counting stats, and he’s likely going to post a .260-ish AVG while producing 20-25 HRs if he plays all year. Cruz will still have high value in AL-only leagues and remain a very useable option in mixed leagues. —Mauricio Rubio
Signed LHP Chris Capuano to a one-year deal worth $2.25 million. [2/20]
Ryan Dempster's abrupt retirement left vacant a spot on the Red Sox' roster and space within their budget. Capuano fills the former but not the latter. The veteran southpaw profiles best as a back-end starter these days, one whose struggles against right-handed batters make him exploitable when facing flexible rosters. Yet Capuano is unlikely to begin the season in Boston's rotation. Instead, he seems bound for the bullpen in a swingman capacity.
Should Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy, or John Lackey spend time on the disabled list, as they did last season, then Capuano can slot in without forcing the Red Sox to rush a youngster or seek an external solution. A sound plan, though one that could be foiled by the Massachusetts native's own fragility: He spent time on the disabled list with leg and shoulder issues in 2013 (not to mention the three-week stretch he missed in September due to a strained groin). Factor in Capuano's lengthy medical history before last season—he's twice undergone Tommy John surgery and is a torn labrum survivor—and Boston might need a backup plan for its backup plan. Still, adding an extra layer of rotation depth at a low cost is always worthwhile. —R.J. Anderson
Signed RHP Andrew Bailey to a minor-league deal. [2/22]
Bailey’s labrum and capsule surgery ended his 2013 season in mid-July. Despite the damage to his arm, he threw hard, averaging 94 miles per hour with his four-seamer, and he missed bats, striking out a career-high 33.6 percent of opposing batters. However, his command and control suffered, as he walked 12 and surrendered seven homers in his 28 2/3 innings. Bailey hasn’t had a fully healthy season since his 2009 rookie year, and his fly ball tendencies make him a poor fit for Yankees Stadium, but he still might be better than some of the team's alternatives.
Last we heard, Bailey was on track to return in May, which generated enough interest for him to have to keep his phone on vibrate when he went to fancy restaurants. If he makes the majors, Bailey will earn a prorated base salary of $1.975 million, plus incentives. The contract includes a team option for 2015, so if Bailey comes back strong, the Yankees could potentially lock up a late-inning arm at a below-market rate. *Update* Looks like May might've been optimistic. According to a report published Sunday, Bailey might not be back until August or September, if he returns at all this season. —Ben Lindbergh
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @benlindbergh