Nelson Cruz reportedly entered the offseason seeking a four-year, $75 million contract. Over the weekend, he settled for a one-year, $8 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Cruz's agent might take a page out of Scott Boras' playbook and label this a "pillow" contract designed to re-establish the 33-year-old, Biogenesis-linked slugger's value. If so, it's gotta be the world's lumpiest, hard-as-concrete pillow.
Some will point to Cruz's new deal as further proof that Major League Baseball's free agent draft pick compensation system is broken. In broad strokes, there's plenty to complain about. Free agents who receive and turn down a qualifying offer essentially have a tax levied on their next contract, with interested teams needing to consider not just the monetary value of the player's on-field production, but also the value of the pick they'd lose to sign him (Baltimore had less to lose than most, having already surrendered its first-rounder to ink Ubaldo Jimenez and its Competitive Balance Lottery pick to acquire Bud Norris; they'll lose the 55th overall selection to get Cruz). It's not fair, really.
And yet, you can make a pretty sound argument that in this particular case, Cruz is being paid what he's worth. He launches majestic homers with the best of them, but there's not much else to his game at this point. Consider:
- Cruz's .319 on-base percentage over the past three seasons is a dead ringer for the overall MLB average, and south of the standards set by corner outfielders (.328) and designated hitters (.323). Once you adjust for park and league factors, his three-year OPS is 12 percent better than the MLB average -- good, but hardly the stuff of fat free agent deals.
- He has a history of hamstring/quadriceps injuries, which have made him a plodding base runner and fielder. Cruz has taken an extra base between 22% and 30% of the time over the past three years, compared to the 40% big league average. He has been several runs worse than an average major leaguer on the bases each season, according to Fangraphs, and has cost his club about five runs per year in the field as judged by advanced metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Cruz may DH in Baltimore, but he's been DH-worthy for a while now.
- Players with Cruz's profile -- lots of power, little defensive or base running value, frequently banged up -- tend to age poorly. His Baseball-Reference player comps include Henry Rodriguez (done as a productive major leaguer by age 32), Brad Hawpe (cooked at 31) and Jay Gibbons (last effective at 29). His number one comp according to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system is Juan Gonzalez. These guys had lots of injury issues (I pulled a hammy just writing this paragraph), but that's kind of the point. Cruz hasn't been a beacon of durability, either. He's not the sort of player you want to sign to a long-term deal, much less the four or five-year pact Cruz initially wanted.
Let's be clear: There's nothing wrong with the O's signing Cruz at this price. It's a short-term commitment, and he's a definite upgrade over the likes of Nolan Reimold and Henry Urrutia. But put it all together, and Cruz projects to be about 1-2 wins better in 2014 than the sort of talent you can pull from Triple-A or the waiver wire. If the cost of a win is around $6 million, it's hard to say that he really got jobbed by the pick attached to his name. The qualifying offer system may well be broken, but Cruz's deal seems to be more a case of sanity prevailing in the C-suite.