Hello, old friend.
— Rotoworld Baseball (@Rotoworld_BB) November 4, 2014
Nelson Cruz seeking four years, $75 million – Nelson Cruz | TEX http://t.co/IqawKaWws0
— Rotoworld Baseball (@Rotoworld_BB) November 26, 2013
It’s 2014, so I’d rather talk about Edge of Tomorrow, but the weird Omega physics and death-triggered resets of that movie would just confuse the analogy, so you’re getting the old standby, Groundhog Day. As you recall, dude is doomed to live the same day until he gets it perfect. Now, here’s the key thing: Dude has a lot of great days in that movie that don't break the timeloop. He saves that kid from the tree and he plays the nice song on the piano over and over, but it’s not enough to be great. He's got to get it perfect. He has to seal the deal, or else he’s… well, you’ve seen it.
So here’s Nelson Cruz, stuck in a timeloop. Or perhaps here we are, stuck in that timeloop. Cruz hits free agency, has certain desires, but his imperfect pursuit of those desires leaves him once again pursuing free agency, with certain desires. Cruz will probably get more than one-year offers this year, but is this a great time or the perfect time for Cruz to hit free agency asking for another four-year deal?
Let’s look at what he did differently this time, and what’s the same.
1. The Draft Pick
Like last year, Nelson Cruz will cost the team that signs him a draft pick, unless he signs with the Orioles, in which case—well, he’ll still cost the team that signs him the chance to get somebody else’s draft pick. We’ve seen cases where that has seemed to cost a player a lot—as with Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, who were so penalized by that tax that they were essentially forced to sit out the first two months of last season, until the pick wasn’t a factor anymore. We’ve also seen cases where the pick isn’t brought up at all; no team this winter is going to beg off of a Max Scherzer pursuit because of a pick. But in every case—even Scherzer’s—the team will certainly factor it into the math, so Cruz should expect it to be some factor. (Whether that’s a $6 million tax or a $20 million tax or something else entirely depends on which team’s statheads are doing the math.)
But even if it’s a factor, it probably won't be as big of a factor as it was last year. Last year’s draft class was ridiculous. As Nick Faleris explained it to us on Effectively Wild,
(Usually) there’s more money available in the draft than there is value on the player side. Meaning teams have more money to play with than they do valuable items to go spend on. This class is unique, in that… it’s an incredibly deep draft. You’re going to have a chance—using my own evaluation—to draft either at slot or above slot someone who’s more valuable than the slot you’re actually picking at. Even if everybody came off the board exactly as I had them ranked, the guy who’s left is going to be worth the money that I’m going to pay. That’s pretty remarkable. That almost never happens in the draft, and certainly doesn’t happen going down to the third or fourth round.
In other words: Giving up the 30th pick last year meant more than it usually does. Giving up a pick in the mid-40s, as a team with a protected first-round pick would have had to do to sign Cruz, would have meant more than it usually does. Even giving up a pick in the mid-50s, as a team that had already forfeited a first-round pick would have, meant losing a shot at a better-than-slot talent. Cruz (and Morales, and Drew) chose a really stupid year to be QO’d free agents. This time, Cruz got much smarter. It’s a shallower draft.
2. He had a better year!
Duh. He had a much better year. It’s way better to do it this way.
“How much better,” I guess, would be one way to put more words in this section. He had a 140 OPS+ this year, compared to 124 the year before. That doesn’t seem like that much, but designated hitters aren’t like other things. You don’t need a designated hitter. If you go to a party and there’s leftover pasta salad and the hosts asks if you want to take it home, well, sure, we all need food, so as long as it’s fresh and reasonably good, you’ll take it, you'll use it. But if the hosts asks if you want to take home a dog, and it’s not your dog, it’d better be a bomb-ass dog. The line between bomb-ass and not bomb-ass for a designated hitter is around a 128 OPS+.
For instance, consider Adam Dunn. In 2010, Adam Dunn had an OPS+ of 139 for the Nationals. He was barely hanging on as a fielder, and it was obvious he would be a designated hitter going forward, but nobody doubted that Dunn would be a reasonable use of a roster spot. He got four years and $56 million from the White Sox. "It's a nice move, and the money isn't insane."
In 2014, Adam Dunn had an OPS+ of 113 for the Chicago White Sox, which doesn't seem that much worse, but imagine the silliness of Dunn walking into a general manager’s office right now to ask for a multi-year deal. Now write some fake dialog, slap your name at the top and, bam, you’re a professional baseball blogger.
3. Oh, but is he really better?
Consistent contact rate, no BABIP luck, extremely impressive road stats, pitchers throwing him fewer strikes, pitchers throwing him fewer fastballs, pulled more fastballs. About the only thing you could pick at is that his average fly ball didn’t travel as far and that his second half was fine but not that good. But no red flags, other than typical ones about regression and age.
4. He had a healthy year
If I’m Nelson Cruz’s agent, and I’m putting together the free agency binder, I make this photo the cover, I make it the table of contents, I make it the preface. If Chapter One is titled “He Hit 40 Home Runs,” I make the entire text of the chapter this photo. If Chapter Two is titled “Knows A Secret About You, Would Hate To See That Secret Get Out,” I make the entire text of the chapter this photo.
Nelson Cruz had one of the simplest good years ever. There’s no three-hour debate in some front office about whether the defensive metrics need to be regressed. There’s no disagreement involving linear weights or park factors or lineup protection or clutchiness. You don’t need to cherry pick your end points or hide the grodie stuff. You’re not going to convince anybody it was better than it was. There are no Fun Facts in Nelson Cruz’s season. Nothing will be overlooked, and nothing can be exaggerated. He just hit a bunch of dingers, which is worth some stuff.
But if I am looking for a Fun Fact to hang my case on, it’s that picture right there. Nobody has a clean injury page for an entire season. That injury page tracks everything. You order a sandwich and they put Swiss instead of cheddar? That goes on your injury log. But Nelson Cruz doesn’t have a single mention for 2014. Nelson Cruz is a player I think of as always a little scratched and periodically dinged. If I were a GM, you could probably change my offer by showing me that picture up there.
5. PEDs? Oh, I totally forgot.
Cruz was already a year removed from his PED usage (if not his suspension) when he hit the market last year, but all the same: A scandal always sticks a bit when it comes out. (“The Mariners were concerned … about the PED effect.”) That’s why Jhonny Peralta’s contract was so surprising: People thought there was a right way to sign PED players. Wrote Ken Rosenthal,
Prior to Peralta striking it rich, $16 million for two years seemed to be the standard free-agent deal for a position player coming off a PED suspension.
We’ll never know whether Cruz was penalized for his suspension (beyond his suspension), and Peralta certainly broke the $8M AAV rule of thumb, but it’s a fair hypothesis. Especially because Cruz signed for $8M.
Anyway, that’s over now. Nobody cares anymore. Indeed, Cruz’s suspension sort of creates a convenient narrative: He was using PEDs (he says) because a stomach infection caused him to lose 40 pounds, which you might then extrapolate caused him (in 2012, the year of the confirmed usage) to have the worst year of his career. Whether steroids help a player or not is still unconfirmed by science, but if Cruz can make the case that they correlated with his worst performance—because of the no-longer-relevant stomach-virus variable—then his career-best season in 2014 stands as a nice, reassuring extension to that narrative.
6. Changing DH Market
You might have read J.C. Bradbury’s piece five years ago on Hot Stove myths, one of which was: “The number of free agents at a position affects the price of free agents at a position.” In other words, the myth is that being the only, say, shortstop on the market helps a free agent, but being one of six shortstops on the market hurts. Bradbury’s contention is that every free agent at a position also represents a team that just lost its starter at that position, and thus an additional buyer. Makes sense!
So we’ll acknowledge that this is very complicated calculus, and it probably doesn’t move a team’s offer much. But: Irrelevant to the issue of how many DHs are on the market this winter, there was a pretty real collapse of actual DHs last year. Billy Butler used to be a reliable one; now he sucks, and no team should want him. Kendrys Morales used to be a reliable one; now he sucks, and no team should want him. Adam Dunn was a reliable one; he’s probably going to retire. Corey Hart was supposed to be good; he wasn’t, and nobody will consider signing him to fill the spot, as they did last year. Of course, Alex Rodriguez will return as a DH, and some guy who had been terrible at a corner will move to DH full time, and maybe some Quad-A journeyman suddenly gets good, or whatever. But it looks a bit more promising.
7. A team to champion him
The team most likely to sign a free agent is usually the one he’s already employed by, but the Rangers never appeared that interested in signing Cruz after he rejected the qualifying offer. “We made our moves and kind of expected [Cruz] to sign elsewhere,” Jon Daniels said. “When we made our decision to sign Choo, it was with the understanding that [Cruz's] best opportunity would be to sign elsewhere.” Without a safety school, you’re a lot more likely to end up at a community college.
The Orioles might ultimately be just as content to let Cruz walk away, but there’s certainly more pressure on them to re-sign him. Like, “The Orioles’ commitment to winning will be tested by Cruz’s free agency. If they can’t compete for a guy who was arguably their MVP, you have to be critical of ownership, which did step up to get J.J. Hardy’s deal done in the middle of the playoffs. Attendance is up, TV money is coming in. No excuses.” That sort of thing.
So, seven things that have changed since this time a year ago. Did Cruz get everything just right this season? Pretty close, though 159 games in the outfield would have been a lot more irresistible than 159 games split between the outfield and (mostly) designated hitter. The same season flipped, with the stronger half coming second, might have helped. Another dozen steals, or David Ortiz’s retirement, or a full pardon by the commissioner on Bud Selig’s way out the door might have helped. But yeah, he got it just about right this time. Four years might be a stretch, but definitely wouldn’t surprise me if he’s weighing a bunch of three-year offers. Just so long as he keeps his head on straight and doesn’t sabotage himself with some outlandish expectation of what he’s worth on the marke—
Cruz initially was seeking a five-year deal in preliminary talks with the Orioles, according to an industry source.
Aw, hell. See y’all here next year.
Thank you for reading
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