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I don’t want Nelson Cruz for the Astros, and here’s why

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The headline pretty much says it all, so there’s not much point in summarizing here, but I am obligated to type something.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Seattle Mariners Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

It is Hot Stove season, and pretty soon Free Agents are going to come off the market in droves. One of the players often connected via innuendo sans substance with the Houston Astros is former Seattle Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz.

If one were to believe fan opinions on the Socialmediaverse, Cruz’ signing with the Astros is already a fait accompli, the answer to the Astros’ offensive prayers. (That’s “hitting baseballs” offensive, not “combination sumo-wrestling/piccolo-concerto-competition” offensive.)

My friend and new boss bilbos ably wrote about Cruz last week, providing all sorts of stats and ancillary evidence arguing that the Astros should go for it.

I don’t think Cruz is a good investment for the Astros. And what better way to come back after a year-long hiatus than to vehemently disagree with one’s new boss? BRING IT.

Caveat

Lest there be any confusion, I will kick this off by acknowledging that Cruz has been one hell of a hitter, and will probably be quite good in 2019, and that I wouldn’t be upset if the Astros signed him. Rather, I intend to summarize my case for not signing him, and why I believe it to be the better of two pretty good options.

So without any further blathering, here are some reasons why the Astros should politely decline to sign Cruz.

Reason #1: Moolah

Cruz is likely to sign a 1 or 2 year deal worth $20 million per year or more. That’s a hunk of dough.

As I previously noted in my overlong manifesto on the 2019 offseason, the Astros only have about $30 million total to play with before reaching last year’s payroll, and roughly $65 million before reaching the MLB luxury tax threshold, which I personally do not think they will come close to. (I know some may disagree with that opinion, but I’m the one writing the article, so there. Let’s pretend that the number is $40 million, for the sake of progressing this narrative.)

Should the Astros commit half of their available funds to one player, and at a position that is probably 4th or 5th on their list of “needs”?

Nah. The leftover $20M is not enough to address gaping holes in the rotation and at catcher, not even to mention the question mark in Left Field.

Reason #2: Flexibility

I’m not talking yoga here, but rather manager A.J. Hinch’s penchant for moving parts around to give guys days off and to maximize player splits versus particular pitchers.

By signing Cruz, a DH that absolutely should never wear a fielding glove for the remainder of his natural days, it removes the Astros’ flexibility to keep bats in the lineup. As it is right now, DH can be used to shuffle around Tyler White, Yuli Gurriel, and to spell Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, who will be coming off of offseason surgeries. Or to keep a Grandal or Realmuto bat in the lineup on days when they aren’t catching. Or any other permutation you can think of.

Adding Cruz removes the roster flexibility that provided a lot of value to Hinch during the past three seasons.

Reason #3: Old Age

Though people don’t seem to want to talk about it, Cruz declined a little bit last year. His BABIP dropped, his batting average dropped (though hard to say which is the chicken and which is the egg), his OBP dropped, his slugging percentage dropped. Was it foreshadowing of decline?

He will turn 39 years old next season. Over the last eleven years, here are the players aged 38, 39, or 40 that have recorded a better than 112 wRC+ in 500 plate appearances or more. Why 112 wRC+? Because that is Steamer’s projection for current DH incumbent Tyler White)

  1. 2016 David Ortiz (163)
  2. 2015 David Ortiz (139)
  3. 2014 David Ortiz (134)
  4. 2015 Alex Rodriguez (129)
  5. 2016 Carlos Beltran (122)
  6. 2012 Derek Jeter (117)
  7. 2014 Torii Hunter (114)

That’s it. Seven seasons. Four of which are from players who failed PED tests during their careers (as did Cruz, it should be noted). Beltran and Jeter are walk-in first ballot Hall of Famers.

So what are the chances that Cruz actually beats those crazy long odds and joins the hallowed company above to actually play most of the season and be better than Tyler White? Low, just based on probabilities.

Even if fans think Cruz can beat those odds, how much better realistically will he be than White? 125 wRC+ at the absolute best is my guess, based on the names above and his output drop in 2018, plus some age-related decline (remember Carlos Beltran?). Does that difference between his performance and White’s projected performance make him worth literally forty times the cost next year? At the expense of spending that money elsewhere?

Reason #4: I like White

No, I am not projecting White to out-hit Nelson Cruz in 2019, although it’s worth pointing out that TYLER WHITE OUT HIT NELSON CRUZ IN 2018.

I know I’m on record as being bullish for White, but my liking of him is rooted in his own performance and background.

Though Tyler White is only projected for 112 wRC+, there’s some uncertainty baked into that, as the calculation is influenced by his 2016 81 wRC+.

In 66 games last year, he had a 144 wRC+ (better than Cruz’ 134 by a healthy margin, though in a smaller sample). If the Astros believe that White is even capable of posting a 125 wRC+ next season (and really, there is no fact-based reason to think he can’t, or won’t), then WHY would anybody consider Cruz a healthy investment for the club?

Keep in mind that expecting better than 125 wRC+ from Cruz is unrealistic due to his age and history of other players the same age. And keep in mind that a 125 wRC+ would actually be a reasonable step down from White’s 2018, and he can be considered in his physical prime.

If one wants to argue that the Astros should play White at 1B instead of Gurriel, that’s fine, but it doesn’t solve the other issues raised above, and it also raises another: what to do with Gurriel? If he isn’t playing first base or DH, he has no value with the club, as the roving infielder position is now held by recently-acquired Aledmys Diaz, a better hitter that can actually play shortstop. Gurriel has little trade value and the Astros are highly unlikely to release him after acquiring Diaz, one of his good friends, and so we can’t just wish Cruz and White into the same lineup by hand-waving Gurriel away.

Conclusion

There you have it. Nelson Cruz is a good hitter of baseballs, and will probably be good next year too. The crux of my hesitation for the Astros to sign him comes down to this:

The (totally debatable, and not certain) upgrade from Tyler White to Cruz is not nearly worth paying 40 times White’s salary, when that money is desperately needed to fill out other positions on the field of higher need.

Think I’m wrong? Come at me in the comments.

The Boss’ Rebuttal

True picture of bilbos, managing editor of the Crawfish Boxes

Lao Tzu once said, “He is a fool who cannot hide his wisdom.” How much greater therefore it is to be the fool who cannot hide his foolishness. Yet here I am arguing with CRPerry, of whom, I used to think, the CR stood for Crawfish. Mr. TCB himself, Crawfish Perry.

(A warm welcome back. I literally love you)

Oh well, Here I go.

I start with my own caveat. In my article about Cruz I never actually came out and said the Astros should sign him. I did not start my research with that assumption. But looking at his underlying fundamentals I did come away with the belief that he could make crucial contributions to the Astros for the two years for which they would probably have to sign him.

Let me take on Perry’s arguments one by one.

Reason #1: Moolah

I think Perry’s cost estimate is a little high. According to MLB Trade Rumors Cruz should cost, not $20 million/year, but $30 million for two; $15 mil/year. Not cheap, but if he can produce last year’s fWAR of 2.5, that comes to $6 million/WAR. That’s generally considered pretty cheap. I will address opportunity cost when we get to White.

Reason #2: Flexibility

I have no answer to this. When I wrote my article Marwin Gonzalez was clearly out, and there was no Aledmys Diaz on the roster. I assumed that Cruz would DH most days, White would play first base most days, and Gurriel would be the utility infielder. I still like this arrangement. Now, if Cruz were acquired, it takes AB’s away from White and/or Gurriel, assuming Diaz plays some. I don’t like that. I like Cruz and White in the same lineup. Potentially awesome. My first take on the Diaz trade was: Cruz is not coming to Houston.

Reason #3: Old Age

Forgive me for quoting myself but it looks like the teacher in me has to go into review mode.

Although Cruz “only” hit 134 wRC+ in 2018, less than his previous three years which were near or above 150, he had a low BABIP of .264, and although I don’t know if the chicken or the egg comes first, I do know that a low BABIP comes before a low batting average. Especially when we see that our subject was still crushing the ball.

In his best year according to production statistics, 2015, the average exit velocity on Cruz’ batted balls was 92.4, 4th in the league. Last year it was 93.9, 2nd in the league. His xwOBA improved .12 in 2018 from 2015, and was ranked 7th best in MLB. Considering his low BABIP in 2018 and that his xwOBA was .34 ABOVE his actual wOBA, I concluded in my article that regression for Cruz would pull his production numbers in 2019 higher. See chart:

Cruz Exit Velocity and xwOBA, 2015-2018

Year avg exit velo MLB rank xwOBA MLB rank wOBA
Year avg exit velo MLB rank xwOBA MLB rank wOBA
2015 92.4 4th .377 20th .396
2016 94.4 1st .397 9th .383
2017 93.2 2nd .408 9th .385
2018 93.9 2nd .395 7th .361

Steamer has his wRC+ projected at 132, about the same as last year, as they do his WAR, at 2.4. Considerably better than the 125 Chris guesses.

Chris cited seven players in the last eleven years who at age 38 exceeded White’s expected wRC+ for 2019. Well, that’s almost one a year.

How about these from the mists of the past.

Hank Aaron, age 39, 177 wRC+

Ted Williams, age 38, 179 wRC+, Age 40 184, wRC+

Joe Morgan, age 39, 143 wRC+

Babe Ruth, age 38, 168 wRC+, age 39, 157 wRC+

Stan Musial, age 38, 141 wRC+, age 42, 140 wRC+

Willie Mays, age 39, 141 wRC+, age 40, 157 wRC+

These names are not the product of a systematic search. They were just some names that came to my mind as having had long careers. Yes, these are Hall of Famers, granted, but Cruz is no slouch either, furthermore a definite late bloomer.

One might object that these are old-timers, that the game has changed. But the wRC+ statistic compares players to their peers, and at age 42 Stan Musial was still 41 percent better at hitting than his peers in 1962. I might add, these players did not have the advantage of the science of modern training, of which, they say, Nelson Cruz takes full advantage. And these guys had to play in the field at these advanced ages.

Reason #4: White???????????????????????????????

I am often accused of being an emotion based abject sentimentalist by readers of this blog, and not without reason. I love Tyler White. Who wouldn’t? A pudgy, seeming non-athlete, 33rd round draft pick from Hillbilly University, overcomes pedigreed competition to become a slugger 44% better than the average player in the best league in the world, all through sheer grit and determination. He’s become the SHARK of major league baseball, and all at league minimum salary. Plus late inning home run heroics. What a story.

He has earned a place on the opening day lineup. But one of the arguments I used in my article on Cruz was that Cruz brought insurance if White fails. And White certainly might.

Despite his 144 wRC+ in 2018, Steamer only projects White to hit 112 in 2019. Well Golllllly, that just happens to be his career wRC+. Anyone can guess that. Truth is, it is almost impossible to project White, and there’s no fact based reason to assume that he will hit 125.

Here’s why. He has had a history of starting strong, and finishing abysmally. We all fell in love with White when he was named player of the week the first week of 2016, his first week in the major leagues. He continued to hit strongly for about a month, and then he nosedived, finishing the year with an 81 wRC+ and a -0.2 WAR before being sent back to AAA.

In 2018 he indeed hit 144 wRC+ after coming up in June, but at the end of the year he again cratered. In September he slashed .226/298/.319 for a wRC+ of 86. In his last fifteen games it was worse, .170/.245/.234 and a wRC+ of 37. In 2018 post season he did manage a 106 wRC+ with two singles and a double in 18 PA’s.

So which White will we see for a whole season? I don’t know and I think the only fact based answer is no one does, even beyond the usual uncertainty that surrounds all baseball projections. Is he just streaky, or is he slow to adjust to the adjustments that pitchers make? Again, who knows? I could easily guess that White is no better than Evan Gattis, who had one great month last year but was invisible before and after. White has not yet proven that he is not just another Astros black hole at DH. But maybe he will be the fairy tale slugger we have seen in glimpses and all want to be real. That could also happen.

So saying Cruz does not add enough value compared to White to justify the opportunity cost is fallacious, because the inconsistency and small sample size of White’s career makes his value indeterminable.

Conclusion

In my ideal world I’d like to see White, Gurriel and Cruz all getting regular at bats, with the expectation that at least two of the three will create Cruz like numbers in 2019, Cruz being the most likely of the three to do so of course. Imagine a healthy Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer, (these guys alone could hit 110 home runs) along with THE SHARK and Cruz? Add a Grandal or Ramos at catcher. Big Orange Machine anyone?

(Of course I didn’t leave much money for a pitcher)

But with Diaz now set to assume the utility role, to have Cruz would likely require the trade of either White or Gurriel, neither of whom, I believe, have much trade value. Which, if true, just proves my point, that no team is willing to bet on White coming close to Cruz-like production.

Cruz or no Cruz, White might break out this year, and watching him will be one of the fun things to do in 2019....I hope. And no doubt the Astros can take the $15 million they would save on Cruz and spend it on something else really good, even if White doesn’t quite pan out.

Back in the days when misogyny was acceptable, men had a common saying: “Women: you can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.” I end this piece about the way Perry started it. “Nelson Cruz: you CAN live with him, and you CAN live without him.”

Poll

Should the Astros acquire free agent Nelson Cruz?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    yes
    (143 votes)
  • 69%
    no
    (323 votes)
466 votes total Vote Now