MLB Free Agent Profile: Nelson Cruz

cruzMajor League Baseball’s reigning home run king is on the free agent market. Nelson Cruz is reportedly seeking a five year deal. After declining the qualifying offer tendered by the Baltimore Orioles, the 34 year-old Cruz is looking to cash in on an excellent season.

Cruz saw his stock plummet last offseason after the Texas Rangers tagged him with the qualifying offer. He started out looking for a five year deal worth around $75 million, and ended up settling for a one-year deal with the Orioles for $8 million. The prospect of surrendering draft pick compensation along with the stigma of a PED suspension which caused him to miss the final 50 games of the 2013 season combined to scare a lot of teams away.

In the end, the Orioles were the winners. They signed Cruz to an inexpensive deal and saw the veteran outfielder post his best offensive numbers since 2010. He drilled a career-high 40 home runs, and managed a .271/.333/.525 slash line for a 137 wRC+. Cruz added two more home runs in the ALDS, as he helped the Orioles sweep the Detroit Tigers.

The O’s would like to bring Cruz back. They reportedly offered him a three year deal during the season. While he is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, Cruz doesn’t come without risk. He’s a 34 year-old outfielder who is bested suited at designated hitter. What is more, his bat was less than stellar in the three seasons prior.

From 2011-13, Cruz hit 80 home runs, but managed just a .319 on-base percentage. In that time he produced +4 fWAR, with a 114 wRC+. There’s no good reason to think that Cruz has suddenly figured something out this late in his career. He’s a solid hitter and a decent player, but a multi-year contract for an aging, bat-only slugger has all kinds of potential for disaster.

Steamer projects a .258/.320/.478 line for Cruz which comes out to a 122 wRC+. That’s good to be sure, and while his defense is poor, that still amounts to 2.4 fWAR. But, numbers along those lines don’t justify a multi-year deal in the range of $15 million per year.

The Orioles benefited from seeing Cruz’ free agent market dry up. They got excellent production from a player who cost them just $8 million and a draft pick. If Cruz is asking for $15 million per year the O’s should count their blessings and part ways. Doubling down on their investment could very well come back to bite them. Unless they have good reasons to believe that Cruz can be significantly better than his projections, it’s time to look elsewhere.