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How much do the Orioles need Nelson Cruz?

Nelson Cruz is proving he’s got plenty left in the tank. Should the Orioles try to keep him in black and orange?

Patrick McDermott

Nelson Cruz is having a resurgent season at age 33. He could reach 3 fWAR, which is no slouch when you consider the penalty imposed by his shoddy defense, time at DH, and home park. Over the next two months, we’ll likely hear a lot about whether the Orioles will extend him and, if they do, what they should pay. Other teams will be on the hunt, given the league-wide decline in offense and his selection to the All Star Game, which proves that Cruz still resonates with fans despite his Biogenesis connection. One thing that’s clear is that if the Orioles don’t extend him, he’s likely gone. Teams who don't extend free agents rarely end up re-signing the player.

If he reaches the market, his primary competition will be Jonny Gomes, Corey Hart, Chris Denorfia, Rajai Davis, and Michael Morse. These players are all right-handed hitters in their mid-30s who primarily play a corner outfield spot or DH. Here’s a quick summary of what these guys have done since 2011, in descending order of fWAR:

Chris Denorfia 467 1490 0.275 0.331 0.394 24 0.319 106 4 15.4 6.4 7.2
Nelson Cruz 488 2021 0.266 0.324 0.502 108 0.355 120 -9 36 -45.5 6.0
Corey Hart 327 1368 0.268 0.336 0.483 61 0.354 122 -3.8 31 -25.3 5.1
Jonny Gomes 404 1299 0.238 0.345 0.422 51 0.338 112 2.5 21.2 -19.4 4.6
Michael Morse 431 1694 0.276 0.325 0.483 76 0.349 123 -11.4 32.6 -59.6 2.8
Rajai Davis 421 1467 0.260 0.306 0.380 21 0.302 85 24.1 -1.3 -30.5 1.7

I was surprised to see that Chris Denorfia is the most valuable player in this group. He’s a slightly above-average bat playing in pitcher-friendly San Diego, meaning his hitting line would see a boost in OPACY. He also plays much better defense than Cruz and is more of a threat on the bases. I haven’t seen any rumors of an extension, but his name is coming up in trade rumors because everyone thinks the Padres are entering fire sale mode.

Not that I expect Denorfia to provide much competition on the free agent market. Cruz’s name has much more cachet; he’s played on two World Series teams, his name was splashed across the front pages this year due to the scandal and his contract status, and he's been an All-Star several times, including this year. Denorfia doesn’t hit a lot of home runs and plays on the dreadful Padres. He probably wouldn’t get recognized on the street outside San Diego; oh, and he's hitting .239/.289/.322 right now.

Cruz’s next-closest competitors are Corey Hart and Jonny Gomes. Both come with concerns. Hart was great in 2007 and good from 2010-2012, but he missed 2013 season when he had surgery on his left knee. He’s on a make-good contract and he’s not doing that well (-0.7 fWAR in Seattle). Gomes has been used in a platoon role because he doesn’t hit righties well; he owns a career 91 wRC+ against them vs. a 137 wRC+ against lefties.

So Cruz shouldn't worry about a team using Denorfia, Hart, or Gomes as a negotiation tactic to get him to lower his price. He has fewer red flags than either Hart or Gomes, and fairly or not, the name "Nelson Cruz" will make executives’ and fans’ hearts beat a little bit quicker than "Chris Denorfia". (Sorry Chris.)

The only real restriction on Cruz’s contract is that NL teams probably won’t bid for him. His defense in the outfield is bad and will only get worse over the course of any multi-year contract. That leaves only American League teams, and even then there are only a few that make sense for him. Keep in mind that Cruz will likely have a draft pick attached to him again.

  • The Mariners are one possible bidder. They have a poor offense and yet are in contention. If they hope to stay that way in 2015, they might make a run at Cruz. They reportedly offered him 5 years and $75 million in the offseason, but he turned them down. Now that they are contending this year, they'd have a stronger case to sign him.
  • The Royals are in a similar situation: dreams of contending despite a below-average offense. Their DH Billy Butler has declined each of the past few seasons and could be a free agent this offseason if the Royals don’t exercise his option. Their right-fielder, Norchika Aoki, is also a free agent this offseason.
  • The Rangers? It’s possible. They have a rotating cast at DH and even have a need at first base. Their corner outfield spots are filled, though — Alex Rios has a 2015 team option which is why I didn’t consider him above. Their 2014 is lost already but they may be counting on returning injured players to give them a push in 2015.
  • The Twins are nowhere near contending, but Josh Willingham, their full-time left fielder, is a free agent after this season. He’s two years older than Cruz and doesn’t project to be a good player going forward. Their DH is Kendrys Morales, who is also a free agent after this year.
  • The Indians could be a fringe player. They have a good offense and their corner outfield spots are filled, but they are contending and their DH (Ryan Raburn) is hitting terribly.
  • And of course there’s the Yankees, who seemingly never tire of mid-30s position players.

So that's the market for Nelson Cruz. He’s not the best mid-30s right-handed corner OF/DH bat available, but he will command the most money in free agency. About four teams could sensibly bid for him, another two could if the stretched their logic. I know I said no NL teams would bid on him, but you should never count out the Phillies when you’re talking about an aging slugger who can’t run or field.

What’s he worth to the Orioles? This year and next, a good amount. The team's at the point on the marginal win curve where every win counts. All the key players, except for J.J. Hardy and possibly Nick Markakis, are on board through at least 2015. And Cruz isn’t blocking any prospects in the minors.

A final consideration is that we’re in an age of declining offense. League-wide wOBA has decreased from .316 in 2011 to .312 so far in 2014. OBP has dropped from .321 to 316 and SLG has dropped from .399 to .391 (even if it rose slightly in 2012). This environment makes OBP and power, of which Cruz provides more than nearly everyone else on the Orioles, scarcer and thus more expensive.

I think he's worth at least a two-year extension. I would go as high as two years and $30 million. That's not much of an overpay -- the free agent market values a win at about $7 million, and it's not a stretch to think Cruz could be worth 2+ wins next year. He probably won't be that good in 2016, but again, the Orioles should go all-in while their window is open. That goes double when it means signing a mid-OBP, high-power guy in an era when pitching is ascendant. If Cruz wanted a third year, I might go as high as 3/36. That contract would seriously enter his decline phase, but if that’s what it takes to get him for 2015, I’m on board.

I wouldn’t go beyond three years unless the AAV dropped to $8 million or so. I don’t think Cruz will go that low, but maybe after his harsh offseason last year, he is looking for his "forever home". We all know it wouldn’t be the first time an aging slugger joined the Orioles for a farewell tour. The team has two negotiating tactics to get Cruz's offer down this low: make him a qualifying offer, which would make him less attractive to other teams, and make noise about signing Chris Denorfia, Corey Hart, and/or Michael Morse.

But these are just my thoughts, Camden Chatters. How would you handle Nelson Cruz’s situation? Would you let him walk? Just make him a qualifying offer? Or would you sign on for 2+ years of him? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.