All offseason long, Nelson Cruz was thought of as a terrifying land mine. Plenty was written elsewhere, plenty was written right here, and in early November, Dave used the term “land mine”, specifically, to refer to Cruz as an acquisition. It was understood that Cruz was seeking a major contract. It was understood that Cruz was overrated as a contributing player. It was understood that everyone was to prepare to laugh at the team that eventually gave Cruz a whopper of a deal. Cruz became something of an unfunny offseason punchline. Then he signed with the Orioles for a year and eight million dollars. There are incentives, worth a total of less than one million dollars.
All along, it was assumed Cruz would end up with something statistically unreasonable. What he got instead is something that’s more or less fine for that kind of player, and this is one of the dangers of reaching conclusions about the market before the market reaches a conclusion about a player. As Dave has illustrated, or will illustrate, it’s interesting that this is what Cruz was reduced to. Something else that’s interesting is how the Orioles’ earlier acquisition of Ubaldo Jimenez in part allowed the Cruz signing to take place.
As you know, the Orioles signed Jimenez, and as you know, Jimenez had been extended a qualifying offer, so by getting him under contract, the Orioles gave up their first-round pick. It was to be 17th overall. As you know, the Orioles couldn’t give up that pick twice, so by signing Cruz, they’re giving up their next pick, which was to be 55th overall. This, incidentally, is one of the arguments against the current system — it incentivizes a team to sign multiple compensation free agents, since the draft cost decreases each time. Once the Orioles dealt with one of these guys, it was easier for them to deal with another.
After Jimenez signed, there were reports that the Orioles were “intensifying” their pursuit of guys like Cruz, Kendrys Morales, and Ervin Santana. Whether or not that was actually true, it made all the sense in the world. In a way, signing Jimenez freed up money.
Here’s one way you can think about that. The Orioles got Cruz for $8 million and a year. Last year, the 17th overall pick had a slot value of about $2.16 million. The 55th overall pick had a slot value of about $1.00 million. So the former was worth more than twice as much as the latter, and these slot values don’t reflect the actual values of the picks — those might be three or four times higher. Perhaps even more; it’s difficult to nail down, and it probably varies from team to team. When it’s negotiating with a compensation free agent, every team has to keep in mind the value of the pick it’d be losing, and this in theory ought to be reflected by the salary numbers.
What the Orioles are giving up in exchange for Cruz is $8 million and the 55th. Now, let’s say Jimenez hadn’t signed. What’s the difference in value between the 55th and the 17th? $3 million? $6 million? Something even more than that? You’d subtract that value from the salary offer, and you’d presumably be left with something Cruz would be humiliated to accept. By getting Jimenez first, the Orioles could offer more to Cruz in terms of immediate salary, and they clearly reached or exceeded the point at which Cruz was willing to shake hands. At least in this way, Cruz got himself more money by waiting until later February.
Maybe the Orioles didn’t actually do all the specific math, but this is at least a general overview of the consequences of the Jimenez move. It’s similar to how, even if a team isn’t using actual WAR, it’s making decisions based on its own understanding of WAR. The Orioles could give Cruz more because suddenly they valued the draft cost to sign him less. And even still, Cruz got a smaller offseason contract than Brian Wilson.
Though Cruz’s deal is of a surprising size, the identity of his new team isn’t surprising at all. The Orioles were kind of Cruz’s only good-looking fit. More recently, Seattle looked like a favorite, but there’ve been whispers of two things — one, it’s been suggested Cruz didn’t want to play in Seattle, and two, it’s been suggested the Mariners didn’t actually have much interest, and that was just stuff coming from the outside. Seattle would’ve had to shuffle some pieces around. The Orioles had a hole, and though Morales was another potential free-agent fit, he seems to be in greater demand than Cruz was. Cruz, clearly, was available for this kind of contract. It’s been noted on Twitter that Cruz turned down some multi-year offers, but all we can really go on is what got Cruz locked up in the end.
Among the concerns for potential Cruz suitors: his PED suspension, his waning ability to move around, and his performance record in a hitter-friendly park. The Orioles shouldn’t have to worry too much about two of those. It looks like Cruz is going to serve as the regular DH, as he’s an inferior defender to David Lough. And Baltimore isn’t much less hitter-friendly than Texas, so Cruz isn’t going from one extreme to another. As for the PEDs, Cruz served his time, and there’s no reason to believe his offense is a total product of drug abuse. He might be hoping he has a more lucrative market in a year if he can get some distance between himself and his suspension.
I have to say that, as small a deal as this is, it still doesn’t look like a bargain. It’s only a bargain relative to what Cruz was expected to sign. Presumably, he’s an upgrade over Henry Urrutia, but he might be a one- to one-and-a-half-win DH. He’s 33, and he cost $8 million and a draft pick. He cost more than Chris Young, who’s an actual outfielder. He cost more than Michael Morse, who was an interesting DH candidate. Cruz isn’t a major impact player — he’s a one-dimensional slugger with failing legs. He boosts the Orioles’ odds of making the playoffs by a small number of percentage points.
But one should almost never fret too much over a one-year deal, particularly when it’s a one-year deal that addresses a need for a could-be contender. There’s long-term cost here in the form of a pick, but it isn’t too substantial. There’s no long-term commitment. There’s no blocking of an organizational asset with promise. Cruz improves the Orioles right away at the cost of money they had available, and they could offer him a little more days after bringing Ubaldo Jimenez into the fold. Nelson Cruz has signed his free-agent contract, and there’s no one to criticize. That has to be the most surprising aspect out of everything.
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