Nelson Cruz Is Smart Orioles Bargain, Perfect Fit for Camden Yards

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Nelson Cruz Is Smart Orioles Bargain, Perfect Fit for Camden Yards
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From the beginning of the MLB offseason, Nelson Cruz seemed like a very good fit for the Baltimore Orioles, with their interest in Cruz reported early on. They weren't alone, however.

Several teams seeking a power-hitting outfielder showed interest in the two-time All-Star, which is why his reported asking price of four years and $75 million, per Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe, didn't seem too outlandish, despite his 50-game late-season suspension in connection with the Biogenesis scandal. After all, Jhonny Peralta, suspended for the same reason as Cruz, received a four-year, $53 million deal from the St. Louis Cardinals in late November.

Surprisingly, that price wasn't anywhere close to what any team was willing to pay the 33-year-old Cruz.

As was the case when starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez fell into their laps earlier in the week on a free-agent deal much lower than what had been anticipated—Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported in early January that Jimenez sought a multiyear deal for more than $14 million annually; he signed a four-year, $50 million deal with Baltimore—the Orioles' patience paid off.

Cruz agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal, as reported by Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes and Jayson Stark of ESPN Saturday.

It was only 10 days ago that I handed the O's a "D" grade on their offseason, citing a lack of aggressiveness that would make it difficult to stay on pace in a very tough AL East. But with the additions of Jimenez and Cruz at those discounted rates, that grade has jumped to a "B," with the team's trade of closer Jim Johnson and subsequent failure to bring in a reliable late-inning reliever as the only concern.

Until the deal was struck with Jimenez, the team's uneventful offseason was a concern for Orioles players, as well. All-Star shortstop J.J. Hardy told Bob Nightengale of USA Today that those concerns were eased after the Jimenez deal was announced. 

He said: 

It was a tough winter. There were times you questioned where this organization is going. It showed all of us that they were willing to spend some money and assures us that we're trying to get better. That was a good sign. It definitely sends a message to us. And it makes us better.

Adding Cruz only adds to that assurance and should make for a very confident Orioles clubhouse heading into the season.

The Orioles not only get Cruz at a very team-friendly $8 million salary for 2014—he can also earn an additional $750,000 in incentives—the concerns over his age and poor defense are minimized because it's only a one-year commitment and they'll likely be able to give him most of his at-bats at the designated hitter spot.

Cruz's most valuable skill, his power, can also be maximized by playing half of his games at hitter-friendly Camden Yards—he has a .333 batting average (27-for-81) with two homers and six doubles in 21 career games there—and 10 games at Fenway Park, where he has a career 1.163 OPS and four homers in 18 games.

While he hasn't had great success in the ballparks of the other three division rivals, the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, all are particularly favorable to home run hitters.

Hitting in the middle of an already very powerful Orioles lineup—the team led the majors with 212 homers in 2013; the next closest team had 188—Cruz has a chance to put up the kind of numbers that would make him a very attractive option on the free-agent market next offseason.

The right-handed-hitting slugger should be highly motivated after an offseason in which he left several million dollars on the table (he declined the Texas Rangers' qualifying offer of a 2014 contract that would have paid him $14.1 million) and had countless teams pass on the opportunity to sign him to a multiyear deal.

Cruz admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs two offseasons ago in order to aid him in his recovery from a gastrointestinal infection that caused him to lose 40 pounds. If they were a non-factor in his 2013 success (.833 OPS, 27 HR, 18 2B in 109 games) and over the course of an impressive five-year run with the Rangers (.842 OPS, 27 HR, 29 2B, 81 RBI, 12 SB per season from 2009 to 2013), it's not hard to imagine another big season that far exceeds the value of his contract.

Such a scenario would make the O's and general manager Dan Duquette look like geniuses for waiting out a market that saw free-agent outfielders Marlon Byrd, Rajai Davis, Nate McLouth and David Murphy get two-year deals for $16 million, $10 million, $10.75 million and $12 million, respectively, and Chris Young get a one-year, $7.25 million deal from the New York Mets after a terrible season with the Oakland A's.

A typical Nelson Cruz season will also have the teams that signed the aforementioned players rethinking their offseason strategy and possibly taking a more patient, Baltimore Orioles-like approach in the future.

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