Nelson Cruz Is the 38-Year-Old MLB Free Agent Who Could Crush 40 Homers in 2019

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 26, 2018

Seattle Mariners Nelson Cruz watches his two-run home run during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

This winter's Major League Baseball free-agent market doesn't have a J.D. Martinez, but it does have a Nelson Cruz.

Mind you, these two aren't exactly alike. Martinez was 30 years old when he hit the open market last offseason. Cruz is 38. Martinez could also sell himself as at least a part-time outfielder. Cruz has been a full-time designated hitter since 2017, and he's only now beginning to experiment at first base.

Nonetheless, Cruz fits the Martinez profile to at least one extent: He's a decidedly elite hitter who really ought to be treated as such.

Cruz's reputation as a home run hitter precedes him. The 50-game suspension he received in 2013 as a result of the Biogenesis scandal raised questions about his early work with the Texas Rangers, but he's averaged 41 homers per year in his last five seasons with the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners. In sum, his 203 homers since 2014 are the most in MLB.

Cruz has also put up a .281/.356/.541 batting line in this span. The latter two numbers add up to an .897 OPS, which equates to an adjusted OPS+ of 145. Among hitters who've taken at least 2,000 plate appearances, that puts him in impressive company:

  • 1. Mike Trout: 180
  • T2. J.D. Martinez: 155
  • T2: Joey Votto: 155
  • 4. Giancarlo Stanton: 147
  • 5. Paul Goldschmidt: 146
  • T6. Nelson Cruz: 145
  • T6. Freddie Freeman: 145
  • 8. Bryce Harper: 144
  • 9. Jose Altuve: 143
  • 10. Josh Donaldson: 142

Whereas Cruz's power output has remained relatively consistent throughout his career, his approach has evolved. He's become a less aggressive swinger with age, which has been good for both his walk rate and his strikeout rate.

Despite all this, Cruz seems to be suffering from the same sort of limited interest that afflicted Martinez last year.

He has little to no appeal for National League clubs, who can't use him as a DH. But even among American League clubs, Fancred's Jon Heyman and MLB.com's Jon Morosi link Cruz to only three teams:

Some contenders (e.g., the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics) aren't in the market for a DH type. As to why other AL clubs aren't circling Cruz, it could be related to what befell the veteran this past season.

Despite hitting 37 homers, Cruz also posted a relatively disappointing .850 OPS and 135 OPS+. Injuries (sprained ankle, elbow contusion, back spasms) limited him to 144 games and could explain a second-half slump in which he mustered a .786 OPS and 15 homers.

It's understandable if some teams are wary of Cruz ahead of a 2019 season in which he'll turn 39 on July 1. No player can defy Father Time forever. Cruz's effort to do so may be on the verge of turning from an uphill battle to a losing battle.

And yet, things aren't as bad as they seem.

Even in a "down" year, Cruz was one of the best hitters in baseball. He tied for ninth in the AL in OPS+ and ninth in MLB overall in home runs.

What's more, there was an unusually large disparity between his wOBA and xwOBA—or, in layman's terms, his actual production and his expected production based on the quality of his contact. In fact, his .395 xwOBA was fifth-best among all hitters who put at least 400 balls in play.

In a related story, his combination of launch angle (12.8 degrees) and exit velocity (93.9 mph) once again made him an outlier among his peers:

Data courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

Granted, Cruz's contact quality did slip alongside his production in the second half. His batted balls averaged a 9.8-degree launch angle and 93.1 mph exit velocity. But that was still good enough for a .378 xwOBA, which placed fourth among qualified AL hitters.

Two things can both be true of Cruz's 2018 season: that he was banged up and suffering from bad luck. Assuming he isn't asked to put extra strain on his body by playing the field, those trends could reverse in 2019.

What could also help Cruz is a new home ballpark. Safeco Field isn't a great venue for power hitters in general, and it's even less friendly to right-handed-hitting sluggers like himself.

It's no wonder that Cruz tended to hit better on the road during his four years with the Mariners:

If Cruz moves to a home park that's more friendly or even more neutral to righty sluggers, he should at least maintain his 40-homer power. There's a chance that he could push for 45 or even 50 dingers.

This ought to pique the interest of the Astros and White Sox, in particular. Their respective home parks are two of the better ones for right-handed sluggers. That's especially true of Minute Maid Park in Houston, where Cruz could regularly take aim at the Crawford Boxes in left field.

When the hot-stove season kicked off, MLB Trade Rumors predicted that Cruz would land a two-year, $30 million contract. If that proves accurate, then Cruz's new team will be getting a Martinez-like hitter for $80 million less than Martinez got from the Boston Red Sox last winter.

Pardon the less-than-hot hot-stove take, but somebody should do that deal.

     

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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