Nelson Cruz a poor fit for the Tigers

Tom Pennington

Not only does he want too much money, he costs a draft pick to sign.

There is no good fit for Nelson Cruz. Had there been, the former Rangers outfielder, suspended for 50 games in 2013 due to his link to Biogenesis, would almost certainly have a job elsewhere by now. Fangraphs not long ago asked, "Where could Nelson Cruz even fit?" Jeff Sullivan listed how Cruz might fit each team in baseball, with opinions varying from "no real fit" to "stretch." Twenty-nine of 30 teams fell into those categories, with only the Orioles rating "decent." They want to win, and they have the holes in the roster, he concluded.

The Tigers, as you might imagine, rated as a stretch. Some would point out Torii Hunter is aging in right field and only has a year left on his contract, and the combination of Andy Dirk and Rajai Davis falls a bit short of exciting in left. That may be why Detroit rated above the "no real fit" category. Still, Sullivan wrote: "Cruz probably wouldn't make this team better."

And he wouldn't. Making the argument the Tigers need Cruz is a stretch, indeed.

The one put forth most often strikes as fantasy baseball, trying to collect certain statistics while not needing to worry about any other aspect of the game. Detroit's lineup lost power. Gone from the 2013 roster: Prince Fielder, Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta. The shortstop, Peralta, hit 11 home runs, although arguably he's worth a handful more when he isn't serving a 50-game suspension. Infante had 10. And Fielder, who hit 50 and 46 home runs earlier in his career with the Brewers, fell to 30 his first year at Comerica Park and 25 in his last.

The infield today projects to be Miguel Cabrera, now at first base, to go along with three fresh faces Opening Day, second baseman Ian Kinsler, shortstop Jose Iglesias and third baseman Nick Castellanos. It's not a stretch to believe Kinsler will surpass Infante's offensive totals and will do no worse than match his power. It's also easy to believe Iglesias, with just six home runs during 1,209 plate appearances in the minor leagues, will fall far short of Peralta. Castellanos, too, won't be able to hit with the same power or consistency as Fielder, although it's hard to say what he will do. Projection systems put Castellanos in the mid- to high-teens, but you're always worried about expecting that out of a player with no track record in the majors. So those who look at the Tigers' lineup and say it's going to fall short of 2013 have a pretty easy argument in their favor.

Cruz in 109 games showed power. He hit 25 home runs, with a battling line of .266/.327/.506. His 162-game average would point you toward a player who'd be on the right end of 30 home runs, if he stayed on the field for a full season of action more than just once in his career. No one questions his power, of course, though they're fair to question the source of that power or whether his low on-base percentage (.327) is a good idea in the middle of the order. But power. And that could certainly help bad the slugging and home run statistics a bit, couldn't it?

So why not Cruz? Because the game isn't played in a fantasy simulation, and the Tigers' lineup isn't as bad off as some believe.

Detroit had the highest batting average in the game last year. At .346, it had the second-highest on-base percentage, just .003 behind the Red Sox. Yet Boston scored an MLB-high 853 runs and Detroit trailed at 796. This despite hitting for a higher batting average and higher slugging average than the Sox when runners were in scoring position, to go along with a higher on-base percentage. The difference was easy to see: Boston was a team with baserunning ability. Detroit was not. Boston finished fourth in MLB in Fangraphs' BsR stat (a figure comparing how many runs better or worse than average a team is) with 11.3. Detroit finished dead-last at -19.4. So while the Tigers could hit for power and average, their own plodding ways kept them from living up to potential. Power sounds good, but consider this: Six teams hit more home runs than the Tigers last year, but only one team scored more runs. Power isn't everything.

Adding Cruz would simply be a slide back to the 2013 ways for a Tigers team that looks so much different in 2014. Where once Detroit had stone feet and rubber gloves in the infield, it has vast improvement at every position. Where once cement feet roamed, you have the improvements of Kinsler over Infante, Iglesias over Peralta, Castellanos over Fielder, and Davis over Matt Tuiasosopo.

Cruz can hit, yes, but he is worse than average both in running and in playing in the outfield. (Dirks was a Gold Glove finalist with above-average metrics in left field and slightly above average figures on the basepaths. Davis can run and gets on base only a little bit less than Cruz, but his fielding is questionable.) Now is not the time to pump the brakes on the changes that make the Tigers a more complete team. Cruz's failings outside the fantasy baseball take away from what he brings to the plate.

Looked at with sabermetrics, it's hard to find a way this makes any sense at all. Dirks, during the past two seasons, was worth 3.2 wins, per Fangraphs. Cruz was worth 2.6. Current projections put the pair on pace for approximately the same value in 2014 -- Cruz may get a minor edge here.

And then there's the aging thing. Dave Cameron looked at comparable players at a comparable age in December, and it did not portend well for Cruz's future:

So, basically, 2/3 of the guys who looked like Nelson Cruz at a similar point in their careers were worthless after age-33, and the 1/3 who weren't created a lot of value in ways that Cruz does not.

So, the Tigers would pay untold millions -- undoubtedly less than the $15 million he's asking, but certainly a lot more than Cruz's added value to the club -- plus forfeit a draft pick (he was presented a qualifying offer) for at best an incremental overall upgrade in the outfield.

Why? Makes no sense to me. This is exactly opposite of what the Tigers should be doing in the future.

Just say no to Nelson Cruz.

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