Could Free-Agent Slugger Nelson Cruz Possibly Live Up to a $75 Million Deal?

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Could Free-Agent Slugger Nelson Cruz Possibly Live Up to a $75 Million Deal?
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Just when you thought you had seen and heard it all in this time of outrageous contracts and outrageous contract demands, along comes Nelson Cruz demanding $75 million.

That's the word according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, anyway. In the wake of Jhonny Peralta landing a four-year, $53 million deal from the St. Louis Cardinals, Heyman says Cruz is looking for "about" $75 million over four years. Or, if you prefer, about $18.75 million per year.

The general message: Hey, if Peralta can get a huge contract after being suspended for 50 games as a result of the Biogenesis investigation, then why not Cruz?

Here's hoping the answer to that question is that there's no way in heck that he could possibly live up to such a contract.

We can start by shooting one idea out of the sky: Peralta and Cruz may be in the same boat as far as Biogenesis, but they're not in the same boat as players. One is significantly better than the other.

And it's not the player Heyman thinks it is:

Free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz had to be heartened by Jhonny Peralta's $53 million deal, as Cruz is the better of these two Biogenesis-connected players.

Based on recent history, this just isn't true. If we look at what Cruz, the up-until-now Texas Rangers star, and Peralta have done in the last three seasons using data from FanGraphs, we get this:

Cruz vs. Peralta: 2011-2013 Comparison
Player PA OBP ISO wRC+ wOBA Def WAR
Cruz 1611 .319 .226 114 .348 -33.1 3.9
Peralta 1609 .334 .160 109 .336 43.0 11.0

FanGraphs

Cruz's biggest edge is in power, as his .226 ISO over the last three seasons dwarfs Peralta's .160 ISO. There's not much separation between the two in wOBA and wRC+, however, in part because getting on base is kind of important and Cruz hasn't been as good as Peralta at doing so.

Peralta's other major edge is on defense. He gets a bad rap as a shortstop, but fielding metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved have tended to see him as a solid defender. These same metrics have seen Cruz as a well-below-average defender since the start of 2011.

Thanks to his ability to get on base, hit for some power and play solid defense at a premium position, he's a WAR hero. And based on FanGraphs' WAR-based value system, he's been worth at least $18 million in two of the last three years. He just signed a contract worth quite a bit less than that per year.

Cruz, on the other hand, has been worth less than $10 million in each of the last three seasons. The power may be there, but he's not living up to a contract that would pay him almost $19 million per year unless he gets better at getting on base and playing defense.

Alas, one struggles to find reasons why he would.

It's going to be hard for Cruz to get on base more consistently as long as he's maintaining a roughly league-average walk rate, and his tendency towards fly balls will make sure his BABIP stays close to the average. It also doesn't help that he strikes out more than the average hitter.

As for Cruz's defense, it's hardly surprising that a 230-pounder in his 30s suddenly has below-average range. It's not hard to imagine Cruz having to be moved to first base, or perhaps into a full-time role as a designated hitter. 

Neither would help Cruz's value all that much, if at all. Because according to FanGraphs, the only two positions that are less important than right field are...yup, first base and DH.

If it's all-around production teams are after, there's no way any of them can justify giving Cruz a $75 million contract. Such contracts should only go to frontline pitchers and position players with more than one talent. Cruz is neither.

But what the heck. Let's assume that there's a team out there that doesn't give a rat's you-know-what about anything besides Cruz's power. Let's assume this team is willing to pay for that and only that.

Well, this theoretical team could certainly be eyeing a worse player. Because Cruz isn't just a great power source. He's a great right-handed power source.

"Right-handed power is in short supply, and Cruz has it in spades," wrote Steve Adams of MLBTradeRumors.com.

That pretty much sums it up. So does this graph comparing Cruz's ISOs since 2006 to those of MLB's right-handed hitters since then:

Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

After a modest bump in 2012, right-handed power in MLB went on the downturn again in 2013. Cruz, however, is still chugging away as an elite right-handed power hitter. 

Cruz is surely aware of this, so it's not hard to see where he's coming from. If you knew you had something that teams have every reason to covet, wouldn't you seek a $75 million payday?

Of course you would. And Heyman's right. Given what Cruz has to offer, it's not a shocker that he has so many teams interested in him.

What would be a shocker, however, is if there's even one team out there that actually views $75 million as a price worth paying for Cruz's power. Because as attractive as his power is, it does come with some strings attached.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

 

Because Cruz has gotten to play half his games at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington since being traded to the Rangers in 2006, you've probably already figured that his power has less-than-awesome home/road splits. There are, after all, few ballparks that are as launchily-paddily as the Rangers' digs.

We can use FanGraphs data to take a look at how Cruz's power has played at home and on the road since 2006: 

Nelson Cruz Power Splits, 2006-2013
Split PA ISO FB% HR/FB%
Home 1589 .262 41.9 20.0
Away 1586 .194 44.2 13.5

FanGraphs

About what you'd expect, and that's not good.

The plate appearances are about even, but there's a sizable difference between Cruz's home ISO and his road ISO. A primary symptom of that is what's going on in the FB% and HR/FB columns. Cruz has hit more fly balls away from home, but fewer balls over the fence. 

In addition to his on-base mediocrity, this is a big reason why park-adjusted stats like wRC+ (114 career) and OPS+ (also 114 career) say that Cruz is only a moderately above-average hitter. His power just isn't that explosive when he's away from Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, which fits with its reputation as a park that makes power out to be more explosive than it really is.

This should be a red flag for interested parties. Another should be Cruz's age.

As far as free agents go, Cruz isn't young. He's through his age-32 season, and the four-year deal he seeks would cover his age 33-36 seasons.

Let's do an experiment. Cruz has compiled a .233 ISO over 2,056 plate appearances in his last four seasons. How many right-handed hitters have ever done that well between the ages of 33 and 36?

According to Baseball-Reference.com, only 16. And they are:

2,000 PAs and .230 ISO from 33-36
Player Span PA ISO
Manny Ramirez 2005-2008 2431 .268
Gary Sheffield 2002-2005 2616 .238
Sammy Sosa 2002-2005 2218 .257
Jeff Bagwell 2001-2004 2789 .239
Reggie Sanders 2001-2004 2052 .248
Greg Vaughn 1999-2002 2047 .233
Ellis Burks 1998-2001 2024 .251
Mark McGwire 1997-2000 2320 .418
Edgar Martinez 1996-1999 2592 .237
Andres Galarraga 1994-1997 2418 .267
Mike Schmidt 1983-1986 2603 .260
Harmon Killebrew 1969-1972 2530 .256
Hank Aaron 1967-1970 2582 .263
Willie Mays 1964-1967 2476 .277
Hank Sauer 1950-1953 2275 .237
Joe DiMaggio 1948-1951 2086 .248

Baseball-Reference.com

The most recent of these guys was Manny Ramirez, and there's obviously a taint on his late-career production. Same goes for Gary Sheffield. And for Sammy Sosa as well. And for Mark McGwire. 

We don't have to go all the way down the line trying to sniff out other PED guys. You get the idea, which is that it's not at all easy for hitters to A) stay on the field and B) hit for legit power once they get into their mid-30s.

And for the record, it does appear to be harder for right-handed batters to do it than lefty batters and switch-hitters. A search also returned 16 lefty batters and switch-hitters who managed at least 2,000 plate appearances and a .230 ISO between the ages of 33 and 36, but none of them did worse than .240. Five of the righty batters pictured above did worse than .240.

That there are precious few power success stories for the 33-36 age group fits with the conventional wisdom for how power ages. FanGraphs' Eno Sarris, for example, did research that found that the real danger period for power is in a hitter's late 20s. That's when the decline starts to ramp up, and it only gets worse for hitters in their 30s.

And no, Cruz wouldn't appear to be a great candidate to age well. Per Baseball Prospectus, his injury history includes six trips to the disabled list, all since 2009 and all with leg injuries. And while it didn't necessarily impact his 2013 season given that the clinic closed well before Opening Day, his connection to Biogenesis doesn't look good.

Would you feel comfortable giving Nelson Cruz a $75 million contract?

Submit Vote vote to see results

So paying Cruz based on the notion that he'll be a good all-around player? He's not good at getting on base or playing defense, so that notion fails the "good idea" test.

As for paying Cruz based on the notion that he'll be a consistent source of right-handed power, his home/road splits and his age are both red flags. That notion fails the "good idea" test as well.

Cruz can't be blamed for looking for something as grand as four years and $75 million. He's a free agent. What free agents do is negotiate. When negotiating, it's rarely a good idea to low-ball one's value.

Especially not at a time like this. Extra money from MLB's new national TV deals is out there to be had, and it doesn't take a great set of eyes to see that clubs aren't afraid to distribute it. Carlos Ruiz got $26 million. Jason Vargas got $32 million. Though it wasn't a bad deal, $53 million is more than people figured Peralta would get. All of this makes for an extra reason to aim high.

But based on his skills and where he's at in his career, Cruz would have a hard enough time living up to even as much as a $50 million contract. By targeting $75 million, he's aiming much higher than any team should be willing to go.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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