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SEATTLE MARINERS
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Reportedly signed OF-R Nelson Cruz to a four-year deal with $57 million. [12/1]

What makes Nelson Cruz to the Mariners so obvious is that he’s an archetype, and an archetype that the Mariners have seemed to be chasing so hard for years, up to and including (reportedly) Nelson Cruz last year. He’s the nicest product in a store filled with Mike Morses and Corey Harts, and he’s the downmarket, entry-level version of Justin Upton or Matt Kemp. He’s right-handed, he’s big, he’s strong, he hits dingers, he does nothing else, but those dingers, sure do love those dingers. He’s the compromise between treating yourself to something nice and having enough money for heat this winter.

What makes an archetype so useful for us: We don’t have to just throw our hands up and blindly guess what Cruz might do. Baseball has been churning out Nelson Cruzes for decades. Some guy in his early/mid-30s produces a rough version of the 2014 Nelson Cruz every year—there was even a different one in 2014, one besides Nelson Cruz's:

  • .272/.324/.466, 125 OPS+, 28 homers, 66 extra-base hits, 48 walks, 3.9 WAR*
  • .271/.333/.525, 140 OPS+, 40 homers, 74 extra-base hits, 55 walks, 4.7 WAR

And as you tour through the Nelson Cruzes of yesteryears using Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, it’s like reading Life magazines from a half-century ago: The occasional flash of recognition and damning significance

  • .273/.331/.515, 125 OPS+, 31 homers, 78 extra-base hits, 50 walks, 4.0 WAR**
  • .271/.333/.525, 140 OPS+, 40 homers, 74 extra-base hits, 55 walks, 4.7 WAR

or future greatness

  • .274/.350/.519, 129 OPS+, 32 homers, 66 extra-base hits, 60 walks, 2.5 WAR***
  • .271/.333/.525, 140 OPS+, 40 homers, 74 extra-base hits, 55 walks, 4.7 WAR

among columns and columns of names that mean absolutely nothing to us now

  • .285/.354/.500, 134 OPS+, 35 homers, 55 extra-base hits, 59 walks, 3.8 WAR****
  • .271/.333/.525, 140 OPS+, 40 homers, 74 extra-base hits, 55 walks, 4.7 WAR

but all of them seemed special in their own time. Just like Nelson Cruz convinced a General Manager that he, Cruz, is special right now.

*Albert Pujols, 2014
**Vernon Wells in 2010, the year before the Angels acquired him
***Hank Sauer, 1950; he’d win the MVP award in 1952
****Joe Adcock, 1961

Common isn’t necessarily an antonym for special; actually, I guess it is, but it’s not necessarily an antonym for valuable. The Cruz archetype could be both common and valuable—the right-handed slugger who produces big dinger totals in his early 30s and… then does what? That’s the question, so let’s look at the 16 players whom Cruz most resembles: All of them of a modernish (post-1970) era; all of them corner players; all of them right-handed, and all of them All-Stars at some point; all of them with at least 60 home runs, 4 to 12 WAR, and an OBP no better than 70 percent as high as their slugging percentage in the combined age 31-33 seasons. The filters seem to more or less work, as Cruz is roughly the median name no matter which category you sort by:

Player OPS WAR/pos HR OBP SLG From To PA BB SO SB BA OPS Pos
Moises Alou 154 8.8 68 0.406 0.6 1998 2000 1196 136 132 14 0.33 1.007 *7/9H8D
Albert Belle 142 11.1 109 0.382 0.559 1998 2000 2050 234 234 23 0.303 0.941 *97/D
Ellis Burks 130 11.8 93 0.381 0.574 1996 1998 1745 166 300 50 0.312 0.955 *7*8/H9
Andre Dawson 130 11.2 93 0.336 0.52 1986 1988 1848 106 255 41 0.292 0.856 *9/H
Juan Gonzalez 129 6.3 67 0.348 0.551 2001 2003 1237 72 223 4 0.305 0.899 *9/DH
Carlos Lee 128 6.9 86 0.354 0.524 2007 2009 1840 131 163 19 0.305 0.878 *7/DH3
Andres Galarraga 128 5.1 63 0.355 0.542 1992 1994 1302 54 235 15 0.318 0.897 *3/H
Jermaine Dye 126 5.5 103 0.346 0.541 2005 2007 1751 143 324 20 0.282 0.887 *9/HD63
Greg Vaughn 126 9.8 113 0.347 0.524 1997 1999 1726 220 368 33 0.249 0.871 *7/HD
Nelson Cruz 122 7.6 91 0.327 0.497 2012 2014 1776 138 389 17 0.266 0.823 *9D/7H
Jose Canseco 121 4.7 97 0.343 0.521 1996 1998 1536 179 363 40 0.25 0.864 *D/79H
Joe Carter 119 9.2 100 0.317 0.497 1991 1993 2058 132 334 40 0.264 0.815 *97/D3H
Lee May 116 6.4 69 0.305 0.438 1974 1976 1799 94 292 6 0.263 0.743 *3/DH
Reggie Sanders 112 7.4 70 0.343 0.501 1999 2001 1423 143 312 71 0.263 0.844 *97/H8D
Alfonso Soriano 110 4.6 82 0.328 0.508 2007 2009 1642 114 351 47 0.275 0.837 *7/8H45
Matt Williams 107 10.9 87 0.326 0.491 1997 1999 1871 118 303 19 0.279 0.817 *5/H
Vernon Wells 104 4.2 67 0.291 0.456 2010 2012 1437 86 205 18 0.244 0.747 78/D9H

(Table via the Play Index.)

On to the actuarial stuff: Let’s just say that every year Nelson Cruz is an above-average hitter, Seattle will be happy they have him. That’s probably generous—as a DH or bad-glove corner outfielder, “average” holds a higher requirement—but let’s give them that. A healthy, above-average Cruz will be enough to justify a one- or two-win free agent expenditure. Of the group of 16:

  • 14 were still playing regularly at age 34 (not Albert Belle or Juan Gonzalez), and 10 were above-average hitters.
  • 13 were still playing regularly at age 35 (not Vernon Wells), and 11 were above-average hitters.
  • 10 were still playing regularly at age 36 (not Jermaine Dye, Greg Vaughn, and Matt Williams), and seven were above-average hitters.
  • Seven were still playing regularly at age 37 (lost Carlos Lee, Jose Canseco, and Lee May), and six were above-average hitters.

There are unquestionable successes—Ellis Burks, Moises Alou and Andres Galarraga were still stars at age 37. But we have 16 players, over the course of four years, producing 64 total seasons, and just about half of those seasons were what we’d consider successful, from our hypothetical Mariners perspective. Nelson Cruz will likely be a pretty good hitter this year—our first, unofficial PECOTA run has him the 48th-best hitter in baseball this year, wedged between Jason Heyward and Shin-Soo Choo on one side and Billy Butler and Brandon Moss on the other—and he will likely not get 300 plate appearances in the fourth year of the deal. The Nelson Cruz archetype is not special.

All that said, this isn’t a shocking move so much as the “meh” we preemptively load up for Mariners/must have/dingers transactions. As I wrote last month, Cruz did everything he needed to do to attract the sort of offers he was looking for a year ago: He stayed healthy, he hit well on the road, he convinced opposing pitchers he’s a threat, he put an All-Star season between himself and his PEDs, and he time-traveled a year into the future, where quality DHs are a little bit rarer and the value of a draft pick is a little bit lower. Meanwhile, the Mariners did everything they needed to do to make an offer like this look almost sensible: Their designated hitters’ OPS was the fourth lowest in American League history; Seattle’s DH’s have been last in the league four of the past five seasons. That should be the easiest position to fix, but it’s obviously not always, and the Mariners spent more than $10 million on the position last year. Cruz had more total bases on the road than Seattle’s designated hitters had all season.

"The Nelson Cruz inevitability" was how Jeff Sullivan titled a piece he wrote last offseason about the Mariners and Cruz. "An astoundingly long-shot" is how a Mariners beat writer described the chances of a Cruz/Mariners meet-cute this winter. But nothing has really changed for the Mariners except that the payoff for signing Cruz is perceived to be a bit higher, and the downside of not signing Cruz is in everybody's recent memory. By third-order record, the Mariners were the fifth-best team in the AL last year. By wins-and-losses standings, they missed the postseason by a game. One of the clearest causes for that was at DH. One of the clearest causes for everything the Mariners have gone through in the past five years has been at DH. It's neither surprising nor all that objectionable that the Mariners would overpay in years and dollars fix it. Nelson Cruz isn't special, but after all that Seattle has been through, he'll at least look the part.