One year ago, the Texas Rangers extended a qualifying offer of $14.1 million to 33 year old outfielder Nelson Cruz. Coming off a 50 game suspension for his involvement with the Biogenesis scandal, Cruz wasn't exactly the hottest commodity on the free agent market. It took nearly four months after Cruz officially became a free agent for him to find a new team. The Baltimore Orioles signed Cruz to a one year, $8 million contract. It's safe to say that O's GM Dan Duquette now considers that contract money well spent.
Cruz was one of the best power hitters in baseball in 2014, clubbing an MLB-leading 40 home runs. Cruz's efforts were a big reason that the Orioles were able to overcome a slew of major injuries and win the AL East running away. He also blasted the Tigers out of the ALDS, hitting a pair of home runs in three games. Cruz has played nine postseason games against the Tigers in his career. He has eight home runs and 18 RBI in 34 at-bats.
Sounds like a solid guy to have as your next designated hitter, right?
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
A late bloomer by today's standards, Cruz did not accumulate more than 400 plate appearances in a season until 2009, when he was 28 years old. He shuttled between Triple A and the majors previously, but a hot finish in 2008 set him up with a starting job in 2009. Cruz hit .260/.332/.524 with 33 home runs and 76 RBI that season and made his first All-Star team. He was even better in 2010, accumulating a career-high 4.9 WAR despite playing just 108 games. Cruz continued his tear over the next three seasons, hitting .263/.319/.489 with 80 home runs and 253 RBI in 1611 plate appearances.
Why should we care?
Cruz is your prototypical middle-of-the-order slugger. He only has a .268 batting average and .328 on-base percentage in his career, but slugs .501. This is good enough for a .232 ISO, which is better than Victor Martinez's career-high .230 ISO last season. Cruz's 40 home runs in 2014 were a career high, but he has five seasons with 25+ home runs and hasn't hit fewer than 22 since 2009. He hits them everywhere, too. Of Cruz's 40 homers last year, 25 came on the road. For his career, Cruz has 90 dingers and 279 RBI away from home.
Cruz would also provide more versatility than a typical full-time designated hitter. He was surprisingly effective in the outfield last season, providing +3 defensive runs saved and a UZR of 1.4 in 580 2/3 innings. Cruz started 70 games in the outfield, far more than most Orioles fans anticipated when he was signed. Blessed with a cannon of a right arm, Cruz could fill a similar role for the Tigers in 2015, especially against left-handed pitchers. An outfield of Cruz, J.D. Martinez, and Rajai Davis might not be the best defensive unit, but would give the Tigers a formidable lineup against lefty starters.
While Cruz crushes lefties, he also has very good numbers against right-handed pitching in his career. He has a career .809 OPS against righties in 2843 plate appearances, and hit .258/.310/.513 with 32 home runs against them last season. Right-handed starters had even worse luck against Cruz, allowing an .872 OPS in 2014.
Why should we stay away?
How long will this last? Cruz hit 40 home run last year with numbers that weren't too far outside his career norms, but when does the age-related decline begin? With a relatively pedestrian 7.9 percent career walk rate and .268 batting average, all of Cruz's value is derived from his prodigious power. He hasn't shown any signs of dropping off yet, though. In three of the past four seasons, Cruz has an ISO of .240 or better.
There's also his defense to consider. Cruz rated as above average last season, but has been worth -9 defensive runs saved in his career and is generally considered to be a below average corner outfielder. This isn't the worst thing in the world -- especially if he's the designated hitter in half of the team's games -- but his defense will further deteriorate as he ages. Plus, signing Cruz would likely signal that the Tigers are comfortable with Rajai Davis (and possibly Andy Dirks) in center field in 2015, a risky proposition at best.
There is a decent chance that Cruz may not even hit the open market this offseason. Coming off a monster season, the Orioles will likely extend Cruz a qualifying offer estimated to be around $15 million. We saw what the draft pick compensation did to Cruz's value as a free agent last season, so it is possible that he may accept the offer and return to the Orioles in 2015. However, at 34 years old, Cruz may decline the offer again and seek one last multi-year deal. Would two years plus a team option be enough to lock down the reigning home run king? Probably not, but that is the most that the Tigers should offer the aging slugger.