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

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.