The Orioles continued their February spending spree, reportedly agreeing to terms with veteran right-handed hitter Nelson Cruz on a one-year, $8 million contract Feb. 22.
Cruz, 33, will likely serve as the Orioles' everyday designated hitter with sporadic appearances in the outfield. Cruz brings a power bat to the Orioles after posting double-digit home run totals for five consecutive years with the Texas Rangers. During 804 career games -- all but eight with the Rangers -- Cruz has a career batting line of .268/.327/.495/.823 with 157 homers and 489 RBIs.
Despite being one of the top home run hitters on the free-agent market, Cruz remained unemployed until February. One of the biggest reasons for teams' aversion was the 50-game suspension MLB gave Cruz in 2013 for his ties to the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal. The suspension not only damaged Cruz's reputation, but also called into question the legitimacy of his prolific career power numbers.
The Orioles, by signing Cruz, are presumably banking on the idea that his power numbers weren't PED-aided and that his bat still carries enough clout to help the lineup. Skipper Buck Showalter has some familiarity with Cruz, having managed him for two months in 2006, when both were with the Rangers.
Entering spring training camp, the Orioles' DH spot had figured to be up for grabs, with players such as Henry Urrutia, Nolan Reimold, Delmon Young and Steve Pearce competing for a possible platoon DH role. Cruz's arrival as the presumptive everyday DH likely means those players will be competing for a bench spot instead.
Because the Rangers offered Cruz a qualifying offer, the Orioles are forced to surrender their second-round draft pick (No. 55 overall) in the June amateur draft. The Birds previously gave up their first-round draft pick (No. 17 overall) to sign right-handed pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, and the O's traded their competitive balance round pick (No. 35 overall) as part of the Bud Norris trade with Houston last year. All told, the Orioles won't make their first selection in the draft until the third round, with the No. 91 overall pick.
Still, the O's seem to be pursuing a strategy of building a competitive team for the short term, even if it means sacrificing their future somewhat. After sitting on the sidelines for most of the offseason, the Orioles' front office has become more aggressive since camp began, agreeing to deals with Korean right-handed pitcher Suk-min Yoon, Jimenez and now Cruz during a nine-day span. The Orioles' Opening Day payroll now sits at an estimated $105 million.
Cruz, the latest addition, could benefit the Birds' lineup. Although I previously wrote an article arguing against signing Cruz, circumstances have changed somewhat. For one thing, Cruz is likely to serve mainly as a DH instead of an outfielder for the Orioles, which mitigates the risk of him hurting the Birds with his woeful defense. Additionally, Cruz now costs the O's only a second-round pick rather than a first-rounder, because they'd previously signed Jimenez, and the difference in value between those two picks is significant. And Cruz's contract demands came down significantly since the beginning of the offseason -- whereas he was once asking for a four- or five-year contract of $15 million per year, the Birds got him at a short-term bargain of $8 million for one year.
Cruz still has his share of warts -- in addition to the PED controversy, he is an oft-injured player who has played 130 games or more during a season once during his MLB career. The Orioles are certainly taking a risk by signing Cruz, and there's a chance it will backfire. But for the Birds, it might be a gamble worth taking.