How Nelson Cruz will affect the Orioles lineup

Stephen Dunn

What are the Orioles getting in Nelson Cruz?

The Nelson Cruz signing is one that would exasperate Orioles fans if the team hadn't experienced so recent much success. Between a broken-down Sammy Sosa (.221/.295/.376 for the O's), a punchless Vladimir Guerrero (13 HR in 590 PA), and a finished Derek Lee (.246/.302/.404), the team once seemed to have a fetish for past-their-prime power players. Back then (yeah, 2011 is "back then") the Cruz contract would have been seen as another admission that the front office thought it could reverse time for the team's free agents.

Oh, how times have changed. On the heels of two winning seasons and an ALDS appearance, and on the backs of established and up-and-coming younger stars, the Cruz signing looks like the kind of move a team with an outside shot at the playoffs should make: a one-year contract to a relatively known quantity that fixes an obvious problem area. Besides, Cruz will be playing in his age-33 season; Sosa and Guerrero were 36 with the O's and Lee was 35. Progress, people, progress!

Cruz projects to be the team's everyday DH, which makes him a great fit. In 2013, the O's DH spot tied for worst in the AL with 87 wRC+. This poor performance makes Cruz and his 121 wRC+ feel like Miguel Cabrera is joining the team. Now, we shouldn't expect him to be as a good hitter in 2014 as he was in 2010. But he'd have to try very hard to fall all the way down to an 87 wRC+.

Cruz doesn't have a great eye, as he strikes out at an above-average rate (22.3%) and walks just a tick below average (7.9% career). When he swings, he misses about 13% of the time, compared to the major league average of 9%. But a higher-than-average K rate is okay when you're known for your power like he is. His career SLG is .495 and he's hit between 22 and 33 dingers a year since 2009. And while Texas is known as a stadium that promotes offense, so does OPACY, so Cruz should continue to knock balls out with abandon. Now, his just-okay walk rate does drag his career OBP down to .327, which is barely league-average. That's nothing to get excited about, but on the Orioles this qualifies as "good", with an upgrade to "great" considering the .293 OBP from the DH spot last year.

Given the current roster, the wailings and gnashings of teeth from the Internet crowd, and Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, DH is the most logical place for Cruz in 2014. But let's say he does play some right field; what should we expect? UZR says he's been worth 3.7 runs since 2009, which is not great but at least it's a positive number, right? That's sixth on the list of the nine qualified right fielders. Defensive Runs Saved is much harsher, putting him at 18 runs worse than average in the same time frame, which is next-to-last.

But if Cruz is bad in right field, the man he'd replace is even worse. That's right, Nick Markakis is dead last in both UZR and DRS for qualified RFs since 2009. So if Cruz does end up playing a bit in right field, you can at least say to yourself that while he's not your first choice, it's not like he's Markakising it up out there.

Finally, we come to the PEDs. Cruz was suspended for 50 games as a part of the Biogenesis investigation. He says he was seeking treatment for a gastrointestinal infection he incurred prior to the 2012 season and "made an error in judgement that [he] deeply regret[s]." Each one of us probably feels differently about PEDs from a moral standpoint, but from a physical one, there's no denying that 2012 was Cruz's worst season. Despite playing in 159 games and hitting 24 bombs, his SLG was down to .460, which dragged his wRC+ kicking and screaming down to 106. Combined with his fielding "contributions", his fWAR was a less-than-stellar 1.1.

And that right there is the biggest danger for Cruz. He depends on his power to be an above-average player. Take it away, for whatever reason, and he's a .240-.250 hitter with average on-base skills. But as I've hopefully shown, he still has some upside, even heading into his age 33 season, and especially on a one-year deal. He won't light the world on fire, but he'll provide a great upgrade from the yawning chasm of DH last year.

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