There have been all kinds of reaction from in and outside of Birdland regarding the Baltimore Orioles signing Nelson Cruz yesterday. Most of the reaction has been positive, although there are some factions that are still restless. To me one of the keys is the fact that if Cruz declines a qualifying offer from the Orioles after the season, they’d be in a position to either still resign him or get a draft pick back from whomever does. (And obviously if Cruz accepted the qualifying offer the O’s would have his services next year as well.) So this move both invests in 2014, and the future for the organization.
But sticking to the urgency of today for a moment, how does Cruz fit into the Orioles’ plans for this season? First off we all recall the team’s struggles at DH last year in general. However keep in mind that the position kind of had a revolving door. If it wasn’t Danny Valencia in the DH slot it was Steve Pearce, Nolan Reimold (before his injury), Wilson Betemit (after his injury), or someone else. That’s been the case for much of the recent past. I would go so far as to say the last full time DH the O’s had was Vladimir Guerrero in 2011 – and Cruz is a better hitter at this stage of his career than Guerrero was when he came to to Baltimore.
But again, how does Cruz fit into the lineup? Valencia hit .304 over the course of last season,
Pearce hit .261, Chris Dickerson .238, and Henry Urrutia .276. (Of those players, Urrutia is of course the only one that probably still has a positive upside, and Dickerson and Valencia are now out of the organization.) In total, Orioles’ DH’s hit .234 last season, with an OBP of .289 and 21 homers. That’s pretty poor in a sense. I would also submit that while it’s somewhat of a statistical oddity, it has a lot to do with the revolving door at DH. Furthermore, it also has a lot to do with the fact that having a different DH everyday means that the batting order itself might be different day in and day out.
So now looking at Nelson Cruz, you have a career .268 hitter who put up an average of .266 last season. His career on-base percentage is .327, and he averages 32 homers per 162 games. It’s also worth mentioning that he was an all-star in 2013 prior to his suspension. But that aside, if he hits 30 home runs in 2014 one might argue that’s only a net gain of 9 in a sense. However it also matters when those home runs come. With all due respect to the likes of Pearce, Dickerson, et al, but would you rather have one of them at bat in a tie game in the 9th, or Nelson Cruz? Or let’s look at this from another angle; when the O’s are on the road in interleague play, would you rather have one of those players, or Nelson Cruz on your bench as a late inning pinch hitter?
So Cruz should pick up the Orioles’ numbers across the board. Last season in Texas his WAR (wins above replace) number was a solid 2.0. Obviously if you plug that number cold into the Orioles of last year, that puts this year’s team at 87 wins. But again that’s if you plug the number in cold – you also have to figure in when those home runs occur. If they’re happening late in games when the result is on the line, that makes a world of difference.
This also impacts the LF position because the Orioles might not be able to platoon that spot as often. So the competition between the likes of Urrutia, Reimold, and Lough, etc. will be fierce. It potentially leaves the O’s in a position to have some trade chips as we move through the first part of the season and towards the trade deadline. Perhaps the likes of Pearce or Reimold won’t get you a top line starter, but they’ll get you more than a low level prospect.