Scott Miller's Starting 9: With Nelson Cruz, Mariners Can Win Now—and Later

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Scott Miller's Starting 9: With Nelson Cruz, Mariners Can Win Now—and Later
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Who knew it would start raining bats in Seattle?

Robinson Cano last winter. Nelson Cruz this winter. Maybe the drought is finally over. The Seattle Mariners: Early AL West favorites entering 2015? You bet. Mark it down. Lattes all around.

And keep pouring: With a zesty mix of youth and experience, the Mariners now are built to win not just in 2015, but also for a handful of years beyond.

General manager Jack Zduriencik stubbornly has clung to his plan, building around ace Felix Hernandez, refusing to trade him despite the free advice of national columnists, and good for Zduriencik. Tempting though it may have been during all of those summers when the Mariners would have had an easier time rapping with Macklemore than scoring a run (or, gasp, two), I never thought they should have solved their production problem by dealing an arm like Hernandez's for bats.

First, it is really, really hard to find an ace like The King, especially one who wants to stay in town.

Second, Seattle fans deserved at least one player worth watching in Safeco Field.

The exasperating part came two and three years ago when the Mariners felt they were close to winning and yet couldn't land a cornerstone lineup piece.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

They chased Prince Fielder hard on the free-agent market before Fielder went to Motown. Disappointment level: extremely high, because as Milwaukee's farm director before taking the Mariners gig, Zduriencik drafted Fielder and hoped maybe that relationship would have given Seattle the inside track.

They chased Josh Hamilton hard on the free-agent market before Hamilton signed with the Los Angeles Angels. Disappointment level: moderate, because while Seattle never really expected Hamilton to sign, Zduriencik romanced him hard and, ultimately, Hamilton landed with a rival AL West team.

Al Behrman/Associated Press

They were set to acquire outfielder Justin Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks two winters ago, but Upton exercised his no-trade powers to void the trade and instead steer himself to Atlanta. Disappointment level: not so high, because the cost would have been high. Sources told me at the time that the Diamondbacks would have received one pitcher from Seattle's "Big Three" prospect list—Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen or James Paxton, likely Walker—plus two relief pitchers.

For now, Walker, Hultzen and Paxton all remain in Seattle and in the Mariners' plans. For now, because the M's remain in trade talks with the Dodgers (Matt Kemp), who reportedly are demanding Walker or Paxton, and in free-agent talks (Torii Hunter, Alex Rios).

In Seattle's best-case scenario, Cruz, who sources say agreed on a four-year, $57 million deal, will spend most of his time as designated hitter, and the Mariners will add one of the aforementioned outfielders to play right field.

There is no question Cruz is a major upgrade. Mariners designated hitters in 2014 ranked last in the AL in slugging percentage (.307), on-base percentage (.270), batting average (.191) and RBI (49). Only the Kansas City Royals' DHs, with six, hit fewer home runs than Seattle's 15.

Also:

In Baltimore last year, Cruz, 34, led the majors with 40 homers, ranked third in the AL with 108 RBI and fifth with a .525 slugging percentage.

Kendrys Morales, he ain't. This is a man who can rattle Safeco Field fences.

Add Kyle Seager's seven-year, $100 million deal, and the Mariners are on the move. Lots of people point to the dip in Cano's home run total last summer—14, down from 27 in 2013 and 33 in 2012—failing to put it into the proper context. Safeco Field is nowhere near as homer-friendly as Yankee Stadium, and Cano mostly was surrounded by young, inexperienced hitters.

I had a long and interesting talk about this one day last season with manager Lloyd McClendon, who was bullish on Cano.

"He's stabilized and solidified this lineup," McClendon told Bleacher Report. "He's given guys more oomph in their step, more pump in their chest.   

"And that's something nobody outside this group can know."

With Cruz batting behind him, Seager and Mike Zunino continuing to develop, the fleet Austin Jackson in center field for an entire season, King Felix, Walker, Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma on the mound and third-base prospect D.J. Petson on the horizon, the Mariners should have more pump in their chest now for quite awhile.

2. Culture Change Across the Border

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Russell Martin? Great talent, good guy.

Josh Donaldson? Great talent, good guy.

On the Friday night after Thanksgiving, the Toronto Blue Jays did not settle for leftovers. The Martin free-agent deal ($82 million) already was done, but the Donaldson trade was stunning.

Stunning, for Toronto, in a very good way.

It's no secret that Donaldson's WAR over the past two seasons ranks second in the majors only to that of the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout. This is a gritty player, a good hitter, a terrific third baseman and a clubhouse leader with a big heart.

Given Baltimore's crippling loss of Nelson Cruz, the AL East this winter is turning into a free-for-all. Let's see what the Orioles do next, and let's see if Boston gets some pitching, but right now you have to like Toronto's chances to contend.

Clearly, the Jays are going for it. Now, the cautionary tale is that Toronto went for it two winters ago, too, in acquiring Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. Some had the Jays as favorites to win the AL East heading into 2013 (yup, that's my hand that is raised), only to see them crash and burn.

It's apparent that general manager Alex Anthopolous is shifting the culture in the clubhouse with the Martin and Donaldson deals. Both are gamers with playoff experience. The Jays' job isn't yet done. They have other holes to fill (such as second base, the rotation and in the outfield). But they're going to be very interesting in 2015.

3. Follow the Bouncing Billy Beane

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Meanwhile, from the Oakland perspective: Trading Josh Donaldson is another whopper of a head-scratcher. The A's already dealt Yoenis Cespedes last summer. Donaldson was their best overall player. He finished fourth in MVP voting in 2013 and eighth in 2014. He was under club control for another four years before he was eligible for free agency.

"He's an Oakland-type player," a scout with a rival team says. "He leaves it all on the field. I just don't understand why you would give away your three-four hole hitters [Yoenis Cespedes and Donaldson] who won you division titles. Now all of a sudden, Brett Lawrie and Billy Butler replace Cespedes and Donaldson? It cuts down on your offense."

So…why would Oakland trade Donaldson?

Well, you could say because the Athletics are rebuilding, especially if starter Jeff Samardzija is the next player dealt (as many in the industry expect).

Except, the A's just gave designated hitter Butler a three-year, $30 million deal. That doesn't look like rebuilding.

Maybe the A's traded Donaldson because after dealing prospects to the Cubs for Samardzija last summer, their system needed restocking. And along with third baseman Brett Lawrie, the A's also received three prospects from Toronto: pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin, and a young, blue-chip shortstop, Franklin Barreto, 18.

What we know about Athletics' president and general manager Billy Beane is that there always is a method to his madness, even when the surface dots don't connect. So that's the theory I'm going with now.

If there are no subsequent moves, the Donaldson trade is a dud. But with Beane, there always are subsequent moves.

One final thought, though: If you are an Oakland fan, fall in love with the players at your own risk. Because the player you fall in love with today is the player the A's will ship away tomorrow.

The A's ranked 24th in the majors in attendance last summer at 25,045 a game, and 10th in the AL. And that was for a team that was dominant for much of the summer. You wonder if attendance in Oakland would be better with any kind of roster stability.

4. The Rest of the Donaldson Story?

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One industry source says he "knew" the Athletics would trade Josh Donaldson this winter, no matter how little baseball sense it made, because the All-Star and Beane were "at war" by season's end.

Multiple sources cite a verbal altercation between the two after Donaldson told manager Bob Melvin he needed a couple of days off after Oakland had played several days in a row. The story goes, Beane told Donaldson if he needed a couple of days off, the club should put him on the disabled list, and that made Donaldson unhappy.

While both Donaldson and Beane downplayed the incident in a couple of texts to the San Francisco Chronicle's terrific baseball writer, John Shea, the industry source described a different scenario to Bleacher Report.

"Donaldson told the manager he needed a blow, and [Bob] Melvin said, 'You got it,' " the source said. "Then that night's lineup came out and Billy asked, 'Where's Donaldson?' "

When told what happened, the source says, an angry Beane demanded that Melvin put Donaldson back into the lineup.

"They got into it in the coach's office," the source says, describing a scene in which Beane lit into Donaldson, with the third baseman reiterating his need for a day off and petulantly calling Beane "Billy Boy."

"Nobody talks to Billy that way," the source said. "It did not surprise me in the least that he got rid of Donaldson."

5. Goodbyes and Social Media

Used to be, a superstar player would take out an ad in the local newspaper when that part of his career closed.

Now? Yes, Twitter. Donaldson says goodbye to Oakland here in a moving message.

6. Hitters Coming off the Board

For what seems like decades, it's been all about the pitching. No longer.

While top free-agent pitchers Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields remain on the market, the best hitters are being snapped up like popcorn at The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I.

Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Michael Cuddyer, Adam LaRoche, Russell Martin, even Chris Young (the outfielder)…all signed.

Moreover, in a telling trend, AL clubs this winter appear more willing to return to the old days of paying for a true DH:

The Tigers wasted no time in re-signing Victor Martinez (four years, $68 million).

The Mariners signed Nelson Cruz (four years, $57 million) to DH.

The A's invested in Billy Butler (three years, $30 million).

And though the Red Sox signed Sandoval to play third base, they clearly plan on him replacing David Ortiz, 39, at DH in the waning years of his deal (five years, $95 million).

7. Free-Agent Power Rankings

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My weekly take as agents bluster, suitors cluster and bean counters muster the courage to write those checks…

1. Jon Lester (16-11, 2.46, 1.10 WHIP): The Cubs, Red Sox and Giants, among others, are making their cases. Lester would look great in AT&T Park, especially for a Giants club that just lost its Panda. But it's still difficult not to see this coming down to the Cubs and Red Sox.

2. Andrew Miller (5-5, 2.02, 0.802 WHIP): The Royals dominated in October, and everyone wants to emulate their HDH Kelvin Herrera/Wade Davis/Greg Holland bullpen. And suddenly, a late-blooming, lanky (6'7") 29-year old may be in line for a four-year, $40 million deal. Hello, Yankees…or Dodgers…or Red Sox.

3. Torii Hunter (.286/.319/.446, 17 homers, 83 RBI): With Nelson Cruz off the board, the Orioles suddenly have a big need. And the Mariners are still looking for a right fielder either via trade (Matt Kemp?) or a short-term free-agent fix. Hunter, 39, would be perfect in Seattle, where he could slide over to DH on occasion when a left-hander is throwing to rest his legs (because Nelson Cruz can play first base instead of Logan Morrison on those days).

4. Melky Cabrera (.301/.351/.458, 16 homers, 73 RBI): Everybody is looking for a hitter, and did you see what Nelson Cruz signed for? Somewhere, Cabrera is smiling. Hello, big money. Again.

5. Tim Flannery: Retiring Giants coach heading into the best kind of free agency, choosing each day between singing and surfing…

8. Goodbye Flan Man

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Few coaches were as beloved as Tim Flannery, who unexpectedly retired as the Giants third-base coach a couple of weeks after the World Series. A great baseball mind, talented songwriter, raconteur, nature lover and a deeply spiritual man, Flannery is that rare treasure who can relate to many different people in many different ways.

It's no wonder that manager Bruce Bochy and general manager Brian Sabean each were said to have shed some tears when Flannery told them he was hanging up his spikes, though there's a chance the tears could have come because they realized they weren't just losing their third-base coach, but their moonshine connection as well (Flannery's family comes from the hills of Kentucky).

Anyway, in a farewell interview on San Francisco's KNBR radio with Rod Brooks and Bob Fitzgerald, this part of what Flannery said will give you a glimpse into the soul of the man:

I want to tell a quick story, because this was the final straw for me. The last week of the World Series, I hear my nephew's wife had a baby—I didn't even know she was pregnant. The season is so long that she got pregnant the first week of spring training and had the baby the last week before the World Series. The season is so long that an egg can get fertilized, it can become a human, you can carry it for nine months, and then it gets spit out at the end, and I'm still playing the same baseball game every night, every night, every night. I just...I'm going surfing, sorry.

Here's to good waves and good songs in your retirement, Flan. And on a personal note, I'm thankful to live in the same town as Tim. I plan to see him often with his crack band, The Lunatic Fringe.

9. RIP to a Boston Legend

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Dick Bresciani passed away this week after battling leukemia, and while you probably don't know the name unless you're obsessed with the Red Sox, you should. Bresciani, 76, was Boston's longtime public relations chief and had served the Red Sox in some capacity or another since 1972 (in these final years, he acted as the club's historian).

Bresh, as he was known, was one of those background people (read: not in uniform) who spends nearly as much time at the ballpark as the grass on the field. While fans get to know the players, people like Bresh are the ones who outlast the players and give an organization its soul.

One quick personal story: When I was covering the Twins in the late 1990s, they opened one season in Boston. Well, tried to. Opening day was snowed out.

So the players went to the park to stretch and loosen up, and I went that afternoon because readers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press were going to expect a story the next day on their team and what an opening-day snowout meant.

Now, here's where things went off the rails: The Sox, in those days, were not the most media-friendly club around (even though Bresciani always had a smile). So upon my arrival at Fenway Park, security guards gruffly informed me the place was closed and I could not come in, even with a media pass. I explained that the Twins were inside, and they told me their clubhouse was open and I could come in.

The guard told me to wait and then disappeared, I assumed, to phone upstairs and get this cleared up. Well, when he returned, he not only told me I couldn't come in, he threw me out of the Fenway Park entryway. Pulled the garage door shut behind me, leaving me on Yawkey Way to look for a cab as the snow piled up on the sidewalk and the enormous, wet flakes from the blinding snowstorm left me soaked.

A couple of hours later, after I had talked with some Twins over the telephone (having explained what happened), the phone rang in my hotel room. It was Bresh, who by now had heard what happened and apologized profusely.

Small story from a long-ago time. But clearly, I've never forgotten it, and it always made me smile. That phone call helped melt my anger like the snow melted a day later, and I always enjoyed seeing him at Fenway Park. Rest in peace, Bresh.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.

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