Nelson Cruz for Baltimore Orioles?

For the last Orioles free agent signing, I had a Ubaldo Jimenez breakdown nearly done, until I looked on the site and realized Zach had posted one. NEVER AGAIN. So, I’m jumping the gun on a Cruz signing to tell you about your new outfielder. Here are three things you need to know about him, besides BOOMSTICKS.

His Health Record Is… Spotty

Forget the steroids. I understand that’s easier said than done, but I have a lot more faith in Cruz (who’s slugged .500 in 4 out of the last 5 seasons) maintaining his power numbers than say Jhonny Peralta. Just about every projection system I’ve seen has Cruz in the neighborhood of .255 with 25 HRs. For the purpose of this breakdown, I’m going to assume he’s going to be a similar player, because the impact of steroids is just too difficult to predict. You know what isn’t difficult to predict? Injury history.

Granted, the last two seasons have been healthier for Cruz (in fact, he played every game that he was eligible for in 2013), but in between 2010 and 2011, he was on the DL five different times due to various leg strains. If I were an Orioles fan, I would expect to see 140 games from Cruz this season, and for Buck to occasionally rest him at DH.

His Fielding Is Not As Bad As You Think

This paragraph was actually full of snarky comments about Cruz being a terrible fielder, until I looked up the numbers and realized that he’s just slightly below average in that department. He’s not going to win any gold gloves in left field, but according to defensive runs saved, he’s only at -16 over the last two seasons.

That’s equal to Hunter Pence. In fact, according to both DRS and UZR, Cruz has been a much better outfielder than Nick Markakis the past two seasons. He may not wow you with speed and athleticism (okay, he definitely won’t wow you), but he’s unfairly maligned for defense that is only subpar and not awful.

So that leaves little reason to play Cruz at DH. The sample size isn’t very large (only 31 games), but his OPS+ is 17 points lower as a DH than when he’s playing right field. Very few players are adept at excelling in the DH role; Kendrys Morales is one of them, Nelson Cruz isn’t. The majority of his starts should come in left.

Hot And Cold Streaks Like Crazy

Similar to Adam Jones, there will be stretches when Cruz will look lost at the plate, and strike out enough to power a windmill. In a stretch of 20 games from May 1st to May 22nd last year, Cruz hit .169 with a .235 OBP. He only walked 7 times in those 81 plate appearances. And then all of a sudden, something clicked, and for the next month, he was a .308 hitter with a .606 slugging percentage.

You can almost mark Cruz’s streaks down on your calendar, whose career monthly splits are pretty defined. He’s a less than ideal player in June and August (.785 and .766 OPS respectively). Fortunately, July is sandwiched in there, a month where Cruz is an absolute world destroyer (.929 OPS), and he’s not too shabby in September either (.813 OPS). Most importantly, Cruz has been at his best when it’s mattered most. Since 2010, his 1.018 OPS in the postseason is topped only by David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, and (somehow) Cody Ross.

If this were a long-term contract, Cruz wouldn’t be a good signing. A 33-year old outfielder with one plus skill (power) doesn’t project well into his mid-30s. But on a one-year deal, not only will the Orioles avoid Cruz’s likely decline in the next few years, they’ll also get draft pick compensation back next offseason if they chose not to resign him.

With all of his warts (OBP, injury history, steroid suspension), Cruz had 22 home runs at the All-Star break last season with a more than respectable .277 batting average. His projections make it clear that 30 HRs is just a small reach assuming he stays healthy. The Orioles were the only team with two 30+ HR hitters last year, and with Cruz locked up for just north of what my team gave Chris Young, they now have three 30+ HR threats in their lineup at a minimal risk. I’d say that’s worth 8 million dollars.