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Originally published December 1, 2014 at 10:50 PM | Page modified December 2, 2014 at 7:14 PM

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By signing Nelson Cruz, Mariners could be on the verge of something big

Team seems to be putting a lot of the pieces together to make a run for the playoffs

Seattle Times columnist


No free-agent deal in baseball is perfect, and the Mariners’ signing of Nelson Cruz comes with its own set of risks.

Cruz is reaching the age – 35 on July 1 – when hitters of his skill-set often begin to decline precipitously. He didn’t hit nearly as well last year for Baltimore in the second half as the first (a .769 OPS, compared to .923 before the All-Star break), and he’s coming to a home park, Safeco Field, which has been ruthless toward right-handed power hitters. Cruz’s history includes nagging leg injuries as well as a PED suspension.

But make no mistake: This is a strong, positive move by the Mariners when you take into account two factors: Need, and supply-and-demand.

Rarely has a team’s weakness been easier to discern. The Mariners desperately covet offense, particularly right-handed power. The .604 OPS by Seattle’s righties last year was the lowest for any team since the 1988 Pirates, according to ESPN research

And Cruz – who had a .977 OPS against left-handed pitchers -- will most likely slide into a position, designated hitter, that was equally pitiful last year. Seattle’s DHs put up an astonishingly weak .190/.266/.301 line, manned mostly by a broken-down Corey Hart and an out-of-sorts Kendrys Morales.

It’s not hard to imagine how the addition of a hitter like Cruz to stick between Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager could have made up the one-game deficit that kept the Mariners out of the playoffs. They reportedly had a shot to sign him last year – Cano publicly pushed for it – but opted against it, perhaps put off by Cruz’s link to the Biogenesis clinic, resulting in a 50-game suspension in 2013.

No such qualms this year, apparently, after Cruz put up a career-high 40 homers for the Orioles on a one-year, $8-million “pillow” contract, to use Scott Boras’ parlance. Yes, he was playing at hitter-friendly Camden Yards, but Cruz actually had a higher OPS on the road (.930) than at home (.783).

The supply of available power hitters isn’t what it used to be, and in Cruz, the Mariners are getting the only player in baseball to knock 40 homers last year. Even if you cut that total by 10, it’s still a major upgrade for the Mariners. After watching potential right-handed targets like Victor Martinez (whom they pursued hard), Hanley Ramirez, Michael Cuddyer and Billy Butler come off the market (not to mention attractive lefties like Jason Heyward and Adam LaRoche) the urgency to pounce on Cruz increased.

Factor in the rapidly closing window of opportunity for the Mariners to take advantage of the primes of Felix Hernandez and Cano, and the psychic benefits of a playoff appearance for a team that hasn’t had one since 2001, and you can see why they’re willing to risk significant drop-off at the back-end of the reported four-year, $57-million contract.

All signs, including the Cruz deal, are pointing toward Seattle being aggressive in their pursuit of the playoffs. That tends to happen when you get so agonizingly close. One more big-time acquisition would make it clear that the Mariners have a “go-for-it-now” mentality. That hasn’t always worked out so well for the Mariners in the past (see 2008 and 2010). But the nucleus to build upon is stronger than it was in both those cases.

The beauty of the Cruz signing is that they still have all their trade chips in hand. Those include a shortstop (either Brad Miller or Chris Taylor, depending on whom they decide to move forward with), outfielder Michael Saunders (though I’d prefer they mend fences with Saunders and try to make it work here), a reliever from their depth at the position, and, gulp, one of their blue-chip young arms.

To me, the dream acquisition to complete the Seattle roster would be Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp. He’s got five years left on his contract (as opposed to Justin Upton, who is a free agent after the 2015 season), is just 30, and showed in the second half, with 17 homers and a .971 OPS, that he is still a premier player when healthy.

The Dodgers have a glut of outfielders, so Kemp is said to be readily available. The price tag would be high – Kemp is still owed $107 million, and the Mariners already have three $100-million players. But if they can get him without giving up Taijuan Walker, whom the Dodgers are surely holding out for, the Mariners would immediately become the favorite in the AL West, if not the entire American League.

I would be highly reluctant to throw in Walker, however. With Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma (highly unlikely to be traded, despite speculation), James Paxton, Walker and Roenis Elias, the Mariners could have a championship-caliber rotation backed by what was the major’s best bullpen.

Throw in one more bat – and free-agent Torii Hunter could be in play for the Mariners – and they’ll have an enticing lineup to go with all that pitching. Especially if Dustin Ackley and Logan Morrison hit like they did in the second half last year (.783 and .789 OPSs, respectively) and Austin Jackson reverts to form.

Remember, top prospect D.J. Peterson is coming fast. He’s done nothing but hit in the minor leagues and is an untouchable in trade talks. After so many years of struggles, the Mariners finally have the feel of a team on the verge.

The pending arrival of Nelson Cruz, once he passes his physical, just adds to that positive vibe.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or On Twitter @StoneLarry

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