I don’t mean to pick on Nelson Cruz. I know I already named him as the biggest land mine of the 2014 free agent class, and I’m not trying to pile on. But down here in Orlando, it is widely expected that Cruz is going to sign in the next few days, probably for around $15 million per year for between three and five years, depending on how intense the bidding gets.
It’s nuts. The way the market for Cruz is shaping up, he very well could sign the most ridiculous free agent contract since the Barry Zito deal. Sure, there have been some serious overpays for overrated players in previous years, but in most of those cases, it’s just been too much money for a still-good player. Prince Fielder wasn’t worth $216 million, but Prince Fielder was a legitimately good player. Nelson Cruz isn’t even that. Nelson Cruz is a mediocrity on the verge of getting paid like a guy who matters.
So, teams bidding for Nelson Cruz, I would like to offer you a sobering list of comparisons that might make you reconsider your bids.
To identify Cruz-like players of recent vintage, I looked at all position players over the last 30 years with at at least 1,500 plate appearances in their age 30-32 seasons. I then filtered for players with similar offensive production by wRC+ (between 110 and 120) who created most of their value by hitting for power (ISO over .200) but not through accumulating walks (BB% less than 11%). Those filters produce this leaderboard:
As a group, those players posted a 116 wRC+, pretty close to the 114 wRC+ that Cruz put up over the last three years. He was a little worse than the group average at defense and baserunning and not getting suspended, so he grades out as 9th most valuable of the 10 players, but I think it’s fair to say that these guys are mostly Nelson Cruz type of hitters at least. Torii Hunter wasn’t really the same kind of player, since he could also run and play center field at least a credible level, but we’ll just keep him in the sample as the most optimistic evaluation of Cruz’s abilities.
So, how’d the other nine Cruz-like hitters do from ages 33 to 37, which would cover all five years of a potential deal if a team pushed that far? Take a look.
Ryan Howard has only had his age-33 season, but he doesn’t exactly look like a guy on the cusp of producing significant value over the next few years, and is a grim reminder of just how quickly a player like this can go south. And the rest of the group isn’t particularly encouraging either. Geoff Jenkins and Geronimo Berroa were basically useless, and Luke Scott has been a replacement level scrub for the last three years after being one of the game’s best hitters at age-32. Even Erik Karros and Dante Bichette, who managed to hang around for a while and accumulate a decent amount of playing time, were essentially replacement level from age-33 on.
Three of the nine guys went on to be perfectly productive big leaguers, but they are also perhaps the three least Cruz-like players on the original list. Hunter, as noted, was a pretty athletic center fielder, and we’ve already shown that good athletes with broad skill sets usually age pretty well. Dawson hadn’t been a center fielder for a while, but he was also a pretty fantastic athlete, and his earlier career performance established a much higher level of talent than anything Cruz has shown to date. And Casey Blake was a third baseman who accumulated a lot of his late career value through positive fielding ratings; his 109 wRC+ would have made him a marginal starter if he was a Cruz-like defender.
So, basically, 2/3 of the guys who looked like Nelson Cruz at a similar point in their careers were worthless after age-33, and the 1/3 who weren’t created a lot of value in ways that Cruz does not. And remember, they were all significantly more valuable players from 30-32 than Cruz was, as they produced an average of about +2.5 WAR per 600 plate appearances during the three year comparison period, while Cruz is only at +1.4 WAR per 600 over the last three years.
If Cruz could play defense, his upside would be Casey Blake. If he could play defense and run, then maybe he’d have a shot at being Andre Dawson or Torii Hunter. Those guys were valuable contributors in their mid-30s, and their performance levels would justify the kind of contract Cruz is seeking.
Really, though, Cruz is much more like Dante Bichette, Ryan Howard, Geronimo Berroa, and Luke Scott. He’s a bat-only player whose bat isn’t that special. When the bat declines, he’s not going to have anything left to fall back on. Those guys, the hitter-only versions of this kind of player, were pretty much all terrible from this point on.
I thought Nelson Cruz would be a bad signing at the crowd’s forecasted contract of $32 million over three years. Now, it sounds like he might double that guaranteed dollar figure, simply because teams have gotten hung up on finding “right-handed power” and are ignoring the huge red flags that go along with this particular right-handed power hitter. It is kind of crazy to give up these reported kinds of significant dollars — and a draft pick, since Cruz got a qualifying offer from the Rangers — for a player who has a very real chance of being an absolute zero from the moment he signs the deal.
Run away, interested teams. Do anything else. Give anyone else your money. It will be better spent than giving it to Nelson Cruz.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.