The winner’s curse can often be used to describe the free-agent market. Generally speaking, a free agent will sign with the team that offers the most, and the team that offers the most will generally be the team that most overrates the given free agent. After Pablo Sandoval signed with the Red Sox, I found myself wondering whether the winner’s curse would apply, since according to reports, the Giants and Padres more or less made the same offer. Sandoval didn’t necessarily go to the high bidder. Nelson Cruz? Nelson Cruz went to the high bidder.
That high bidder being the Seattle Mariners, who are giving Cruz four years and $57 million. The Orioles wanted Cruz back, but they weren’t willing to match the Mariners’ aggressiveness. The Orioles didn’t want to go from three to four years, and the Orioles are reportedly interested in giving four years to Nick Markakis. It’s the Mariners who most highly valued Cruz, making for a pretty significant immediate overpay. It’s never really fun to analyze contract terms, but that’s the natural starting point, as Cruz has landed the contract he’s wanted for more than a year.
Fifty-seven million dollars, four years. For the time being, let’s ignore the draft pick. (The Mariners are giving up the No. 19 draft pick.) What sort of overpay does that look like? We can’t, of course, know exactly how the future is going to play out, but we can make some assumptions to try to get in the ballpark. Let’s say an average win costs something like $6.5 million. Increase 5% a year. Steamer projects Cruz to be worth 1.5 wins. Decrease by half a win a year, because Cruz is 34 and five more months. Following those inputs, a four-year contract would be expected to be worth about $20 million.
How about ZiPS, instead of Steamer? ZiPS is a little more optimistic, at least in terms of overall WAR. Going through the same math, a four-year contract would be expected to be worth about $29 million.
What if we start at 2.5 WAR, instead of 2? That gets us up to $48 million. And if we change the cost of a win to $7 million flat, that gets us up to $52 million. If we start all the way up at 3 WAR, that gets us to $67 million, which is the rough equivalent of Cruz’s actual contract when you then factor in the cost of giving up the draft pick. You could say, then, that the Mariners are paying Cruz as if he’s an above-average player today. It’s not an unreasonable belief, given that Cruz just led baseball in dingers, but it’s a belief others clearly don’t share. Cruz, most simply, has one skill. He’s coming off by far his best season since 2010, and he’ll turn 35 before the next All-Star break. By generous estimates, the Mariners are paying Cruz fairly. By another objective estimate, the Mariners are paying Cruz twice as much as they should.
If you consider all the estimates and put them together, the Mariners are paying too much for this, by some millions of dollars. Even the Mariners, probably, would say the same thing, but they’d argue they needed a right-handed hitter, and there aren’t many good ones available. The Mariners tried to sign Victor Martinez before he stayed with Detroit. That contract is thought to be an overpay, with Martinez getting $68 million. But then, Martinez is projected for a 139 wRC+; Cruz, 119. Billy Butler is also projected for 119, and he signed a smaller contract. Yasmany Tomas signed for similar money, despite being a decade younger.
There were alternatives. There are always alternatives, and there are always alternatives who aren’t, say, Justin Upton or Evan Gattis or Matt Kemp, who would cost real, actual young talent. The Mariners don’t want to trade Taijuan Walker and that’s fine, but if all they needed was to get more right-handed, there are ways to do that, lower-tier ways to do that, that wouldn’t come at a long-term cost. If they figure they have trouble convincing free-agent righties to come to Seattle, then you look at trades for role players. I can’t speak to specifics without more inside information, but the general point here is it was never Nelson Cruz or bust. Or, it never should’ve been. Focusing on one player is precisely what causes teams to overpay.
All that, though — that’s worrying about millions of dollars down the road. And while the Mariners are technically giving away a prospect in making this move, it’s easier to stomach prospect disposal before they have names and statistics. Cruz should at least be worth the money he’s getting paid in 2015. So we should talk about what he brings to the Mariners.
Word is, he’s mostly going to DH. Before Cruz signed on, I had to fill the Mariners’ DH slot in the depth charts with Stefen Romero and Jesus Montero. There was no real internal option. Not for a team that’s supposed to be good. Cruz represents a massive upgrade over what the Mariners already had, and he represents an even more massive upgrade over what the Mariners used last season. You’ll see here the Mariners are projected as the best team in their division. It’s one projection, based off one set of depth charts and one projection system, but you can understand why the Mariners are prioritizing the immediate. Right now, they’re in that delicate win-curve position, where every improvement is worth more than your average given improvement. The Mariners just missed the playoffs by a game; they don’t want to repeat.
While Cruz is a single-skill player, it’s a good skill that he possesses. Over the last three years, he ranks in the top 10% in slugging percentage on contact, at .655. Last season, he finished at .680, and the season before, he finished at .687. There’s a belief that Cruz just spiked in Baltimore. In terms of value, it’s true, but he didn’t exactly do more damage when he hit the ball. Compared to 2013, Cruz’s power was the same. His BABIP was the same. His batted balls were the same. His walks were the same. What Cruz did was strike out less. We’re talking one fewer strikeout ever 30 plate appearances or so, but that was one more opportunity for Cruz to hit the ball fair, and that’s where he excels.
Between the last two years, 237 different players batted at least 250 times in both. Cruz saw the 29th-biggest improvement in strikeout rate, or if you prefer, in 2011, Cruz struck out 25% more often than the league average. The next year, 13%, and the next year, 21%. Last year, 5%. Cruz performed better because he hit the ball more often. It’s a simple explanation.
It’s also a tricky thing to bet on, because Cruz also significantly trimmed his strikeouts in 2010. Then they came right back, and his wRC+ dropped 31 points. So, it’s good that Cruz just struck out less often, but he’s done that before, and it reversed itself, so the safest assumption is that Cruz will look like his longer-term self. He wasn’t pitched any differently, indicating there wasn’t a change in Cruz’s scouting report. Once you adjust for ballpark, Cruz faced basically the same pitching patterns, and he simply did a little more damage.
How does this age? Let’s do something really simple. I examined the last 40 years, looking for players worth 3+ WAR, with an ISO of .200+. Here are the number of players meeting the criteria, by age:
- 31: 103 players
- 32: 72
- 33: 52
- 34: 41
- 35: 33
- 36: 21
- 37: 14
Cruz just finished his age-33 season. Above, you see that there were a quarter as many good 37-year-olds as good 33-year-olds, by the specific filters. And the steroid era changes this a little bit, since those players lasted unnaturally too long, so it should be clear the Mariners aren’t signing Cruz with 2017 and 2018 in mind. As powerful as he is today, things slow down. A little bit of slow-down makes a lot of difference.
It’s all about the next season or two, and the Mariners will just live with some dead money toward the back end. It’s possible they’ll be paying Cruz $15 million or so in 2018 to do nothing, and that’ll be at least, say, 10% of the payroll, but when you’re trying to win right away, it’s easier to tolerate losing money over players, and this is evidence of going for it. The Mariners see an opportunity, and while they’re surely smart enough to see the Cruz downside, they also understand that playoff revenue can cure a lot of budgetary ills. Forgive them, for it’s been a while.
One last thing: there’s a certain belief that Cruz is fragile. He’s been fragile in the past, but in 2012 and in 2014, he played in 159 games. In 2013, he was on pace for a full season until getting slapped with a suspension. The Mariners can be encouraged that Cruz might bat another 650 times in the season ahead. Especially if he spends most of his time at DH.
And the season ahead is the season we understand best. In the seasons beyond that, Cruz is probably going to be bad for the payroll. What I want is a word somewhere in between “probably” and “certainly”. This is an almost definite overpay. But to determine the extent, you need to figure out all the right conditions, including how much the Mariners ought to prioritize the immediate future over the more distant future. There were alternatives to this, but this also didn’t cost a young major-leaguer. It’s the young major-leaguers the Mariners need to be careful with, because their low salaries help to offset salaries guaranteed to players like Nelson Cruz.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.