Sports

Dave Boling: Debate the value, but Nelson Cruz is way better than what the Seattle Mariners had

The internet is filled with early opinions about the Seattle Mariners’ signing of free agent Nelson Cruz. They range from those, on one side, who suggest the move will fail, all the way to those on the other extreme, convinced it will fail spectacularly.

I confess a lack of fluency in sabermetrics and the complex calculus employed to quantify baseball performance.

But a truism in any sport is that the minimum a front office should do is identify a team’s greatest need and fill it with the athlete best suited to the task.

You have to fix the broken places. And, man, have the Mariners been broken at designated hitter, the place where Cruz is likely to contribute.

The Mariners were in wild card contention until the final day while receiving the worst production from the DH spot in baseball. Cruz, meanwhile, led the big leagues with 40 home runs.

Need meets solution.

It’s never that simple, of course.

One, he’s expensive. Reports hold that the free agent from the Dominican Republic agreed to a four-year, $57 million deal, and will be slotted behind Robinson Cano at cleanup.

The doubts center on his age and reliability. He’s 34 and has had questions of durability. In addition, he was suspended 50 games in 2013 for involvement in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal.

Operating on a one-year deal with the Orioles this past season, he put up a career-best in homers, along with 108 runs batted in, and matched his high of 159 game appearances.

Can he keep up that production and reliability when not motivated by the need to secure his next contract?

Let’s say he doesn’t function at that level, which is reasonable especially considering the issues hitters face at Safeco Field. In the five seasons before this past season though, (including the one in which he sat out the suspension), he averaged 27 home runs and 81 RBIs.

That’s so awful it would have led the Mariners in homers and been third in RBIs last season. Those average numbers, too, would have been far superior to the combined production of Mariners DHs last season — 15 home runs and 50 RBIs.

How much difference would even a few extra home runs and RBIs have made this past season? And that’s just from the DH, not counting the effect it would have on Cano, who would expect to see better pitches with the threat of Cruz’s bat following him in the order.

We’ve been conditioned for most of a decade to just assume a high-profile Mariners move is doomed to failure.

But recently, they’ve been riding enough of a personnel winning streak that the knee-jerk suspicions should be changing. Doesn’t it seem a critical mass is being generated in the right direction?

In a chain of appropriate events:

They locked up Felix Hernandez, which was crucial to the fans.

They money-lured Cano, which was important in validating their commitment to Felix.

They extended All-Star, Gold Glove third baseman Kyle Seager, which was a gesture to the future.

And now they signed Nelson Cruz, which seems so totally about winning immediately.

This contract is not about what Cruz can do for them when he’s 38. It’s about getting that extra few wins out of this lineup to get them back into the postseason next year.

The expenditure is the latest in a line of those providing evidence they’re serious about winning.

They probably overspent for Cruz. Maybe he won’t hit 40 homers, or even 30.

But where the Mariners stood, even 20 or 25 would be the kind of improvement that could make a significant difference.

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