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Should The Orioles Pursue Nelson Cruz?

January 3, 2014

Thus far this winter, the Orioles have been frozen out of the free-agent market.

Meanwhile, free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz has found himself without a dance partner as well, remaining unsigned into January while most other prominent free agents have found homes.

MLB: Nelson Cruz (Rangers)

Could Cruz and the Orioles be a match for each other? FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan thinks so. In a Jan. 2 article, Sullivan considered Cruz's options among all 30 teams and concluded that the O's were the only decent fit.

On paper, it makes sense. The Orioles currently have a hole at the designated hitter slot -- if the season started today, it would probably be a platoon of Nolan Reimold and Henry Urrutia -- and the O's might also be in the market for a left fielder if they would rather have outfielder David Lough as a bench guy.

And -- again, on paper -- Cruz could represent an upgrade to the Orioles' lineup. He has powered 22 or more home runs during five consecutive seasons, with 157 career blasts, a .495 SLG and an .823 OPS. Cruz also has a prior history with manager Buck Showalter; in 2006, Cruz's first year with the Texas Rangers, Showalter was his skipper.

The deeper you look, though, the less appealing Cruz becomes. At 33, Cruz is most likely entering the downward slope of his career. He has already had trouble staying healthy; he missed at least 30 games during four of his past five seasons (although his missed time in 2013 wasn't injury-related, which we'll get to in a moment). Cruz's nagging injuries figure to become more pronounced as he gets older, and it's hard to consider him a player who can be reliably penned into the lineup for 150-160 games.

Additionally, Cruz's defense is -- by most accounts -- woeful. FanGraphs advanced defensive stats have graded him as a below average fielder for the past three seasons, while Baseball Reference gives him a career defensive WAR of -4.8, with no positive-value seasons since 2006. Cruz's defensive struggles were on display during the 2011 World Series, when he failed to catch a Game Six ninth-inning fly ball that would've won the series for the Rangers.

And then there's the issue of performance-enhancing drugs. In 2013, Cruz was one of several major leaguers who infamously received a 50-game suspension from MLB for use of PEDs. The ban kept him out of the lineup for the bulk of August and September while the Rangers were fighting for their postseason lives. 

It would be understandable if the Orioles -- and other teams -- wanted to avoid the controversy that Cruz would bring to a team. Plus, the revelation of Cruz's PED use casts a suspicious light on some of the power numbers he's put up throughout his career. Were his numbers artificially inflated?

But perhaps the biggest obstacle in signing Cruz -- other than his outrageous contract demands of $15 million per year for four or five years -- is the fact that the Rangers gave him a qualifying offer. That means that if the Orioles signed him, they would lose their first-round draft pick (No. 17 overall). The O's team are light on organizational depth, and they'd be giving up a chance to add a decent prospect to the minor leagues during the 2014 draft.

Granted, a player drafted 17th is no sure thing to become a quality big leaguer, but teams can still land an intriguing talent at that spot. And keep in mind that the Orioles won't have a pick during the supplemental round between the first and second rounds, having dealt that pick to the Astros as part of the Bud Norris trade during the 2013 season. 

If the Orioles were to give up their first-rounder as well, they'd have to wait a while before making their first pick during the June draft. It might've been OK for the Orioles to lose that pick for a more valuable free agent, such as Shin-Soo Choo, but for Cruz? It hardly seems worth it.

On Dec. 11, I was beating the drum for the Orioles to sign free agents, and I still think they need to start spending money to acquire veteran talent. But I don't think Cruz is the guy they should be spending it on. As Sullivan writes in his article, "[Cruz is] a half-decent aging outfielder who's going to cost millions and a draft pick. You won't find many bigger gaps between name value and real value." That about sums it up.