Should The Mariners Extend Nelson Cruz?

When the Mariners signed Nelson Cruz to a 4-year deal before the 2015 season, I was in the camp that yelled out to the heavens, “IT’S ABOUT TIME!”  I wanted him a year earlier – when he was a bargain for the Orioles on a 1-year deal – but we missed out.  Not letting that opportunity slip through our fingers a second time, Jackie Z & Co. signed him to a $57 million contract (all guaranteed, because MLB), $1 million as a signing bonus, with four equal shares of $14 million per year paying out accordingly.

Given his age, his declining athleticism from an outfield defense perspective, and his injury history, I think we all took that deal in the same vein we did the Robinson Cano deal:  if we can get his usual offensive production for half of the deal, it would be worth it.  Anything beyond that is pure gravy.

Well, we’re just over halfway through the final year of that deal, and as Mariners fans we’re up to our EYEBALLS in gravy!

I know it sounds crazy, but as purely a DH making $14 million per year, Nelson Cruz has nevertheless been a total bargain.  He’s averaged over 150 games per season (and is on his way to matching that this year), he’s hit for 44, 43, and 39 homers (respectively), and he’s already got 22 this year (on pace to surpass 40 homers yet again).  This is what we brought him here for, to hit dingers and hit for a solid average.  And, while those numbers have been steadily declining, it’s been ever-so-slight; so slight as to really be negligible from a production standpoint.  2015 was his best year with the Mariners (and arguably his best year ever), but he’s only dropped a tad since then.  Instead of falling off of a mountain, Cruz is enjoying a leisurely stroll down a molehill.

He could drop dead the moment I publish this post and his stint with the Mariners would STILL be better than my wildest dreams upon his signing 4 years ago.  Which brings us to the ultimate question:  should the Mariners keep him around beyond 2018?

I find myself saying the same things I always say about a beloved veteran athlete whose prime might be just behind him, but is otherwise still playing at a high level:  I wouldn’t mind having him back, under the right contract.  Obviously, I want something that’s somewhat team-friendly, but I also live in the real world, and I understand how deals work in the MLB.  Reports indicate Cruz is looking for a multi-year deal.  Given how much of a boss he’s been for the majority of his career – but especially when he got out of Texas and became more of an all-world DH – my hunch is he’ll get what he’s looking for.  But, “multi-year” can mean a lot of things.  Since he just turned 38 years old this week, I can’t imagine he’ll land anything beyond a 2-year contract (it only takes one team, of course, so it wouldn’t TOTALLY shock me if he saw a 3-year deal from someone like the Royals or, I dunno, the Orioles maybe; but I highly doubt it).  So, would I be interested in the Mariners signing him to a 2-year deal worth $26-$30 million?

I mean, again, I probably wouldn’t be devastated, but the more I think about it, the more I start to wonder if I’m coming at this from the wrong angle.

I keep saying I want to be the type of fan that roots for teams who get rid of aging players a year too early vs. a year too late.  So, I need to build some thicker skin about these types of things.  Yes, Cruz has been wonderful in a Mariners uniform; you can consider me a fan for life for all he’s done.  Do I really want that legacy tarnished if he turns into a Richie Sexson in his final season with us?

More to the point:  do I think Cruz has two MORE years where he can give us this type of 4-win production?

The Mariners just signed Wade LeBlanc to an extension this week.  He’s got guaranteed money for 2019, with apparent team options (and incentives) based on his performance that could see him in Seattle through 2022.  It’s basically one of the most team-friendly deals I’ve ever seen that wasn’t negotiated by the player directly.  A lot of the Mariners core we have now is locked up at least through next year, if not for many years to come.  Cruz is really the most important player not under contract for next year, which is why this is coming up now.

For what it’s worth, the LAST thing I want to have happen is for the Mariners to extend him before the season ends.  I mean, let’s face it, he’s one major injury away from calling it a career.  That’s just the way these things go when you get to be his age.  If he tears a rotator cuff or an ACL or otherwise has to go on the shelf for up to a year, how good do you think he’s going to be when he comes back?  That’s assuming he has no setbacks!  Will he have the power he has now?  Will he be able to hit for the average he’s hitting now?  Or, will both of those numbers dip to the point that – considering he plays no defense whatsoever – he’s just a replacement-level player that can only DH?

Sorry, but you HAVE to wait to see how his season plays out before even CONSIDERING an extension.  At which point, I say you wait for the market to dictate what he’s worth.  Teams haven’t been willing to shell out mega millions for designated hitters in recent years.  You could argue he’s different, and given his work ethic and leadership abilities, he’s worth more than your average lumbering slugger.  But, I wouldn’t bet he’ll get insane money.  It’s even possible he’d earn less of a base salary (with more in the way of incentives) than he’s getting now.

And, as always, Bob Dutton makes some good points here.  What do the Mariners want to do with Robinson Cano after this year?  We’re in the 5th year of his 10-year deal, and the plan all along was to eventually move him away from second base.  With his suspension, it looks like that plan has been accelerated.  It was always going to require the Mariners getting a worthy second baseman to take his place, and with Dee Gordon’s emergence, you can see why the team is comfortable with him there.  And, with Healy under team control (arbitration eligible through 2022), and Evan White behind him, I don’t see a lot of free time from the first base position.  Besides that, how would Cano take to a possible transition there?  He might prefer (and even be better suited) to simply DHing.

These are all questions we have facing us in mid-August when Cano returns from his suspension, by the way.  Where does he fit?  I would assume he’ll still play some at second base, but not so much that it cuts Dee Gordon out (who will need to be our starter there in the playoffs).  I would also assume Cano fills in at first base on a part time basis – possibly against right-handed pitchers? – but it’s going to be a struggle.  You can’t play Cano at DH over Cruz, barring injury.  But, you CAN play him at DH starting next year, if Cruz is playing elsewhere.

Based on the way the roster is constructed, this seems to be the most sensible and smartest way to go.  I love Cruz, and in another world I wouldn’t mind him finishing his career in Seattle.  But, we’ve got Cano for another 5 years, at $24 million per year, rendering him effectively untradeable.

Best case scenario has the Mariners passing Cano through waivers in August and sending him somewhere in a salary dump deal with a team looking for some veteran leadership.  But, considering he has a full no-trade clause, that seems unlikely.  It would also require the Mariners to eat anywhere from $10-$14 million per year for the rest of the contract, which almost defeats the purpose.

Unless the purpose is to use the money you’re saving to put it up toward a Nelson Cruz extension.  Long story short, the only way I want to see the Mariners extend Cruz is by first ridding themselves out from under the albatross that is Cano’s massive contract.  Since that seems impossible, I’m afraid we’re going to have to bid adieu to Mr. Cruz after this season, with the consolation being that we enjoyed the perfect free agent transaction (which is so rare nowadays).