Daniel Clark: Early returns on Cruz have been more than promising

After a slow and frustrating start to last offseason, the Orioles made a number of key signings in a flurry just prior to the start of spring training games in late February. The signings, which included the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Suk Min-Yoon and Nelson Cruz, had Birdland excited and looking forward to a third straight winning season - and possibly more.

Of these three signings, it was the addition of Cruz that was most popular among fans, as the powerful right-handed hitter would complement the existing power-hitting Orioles lineup perfectly, creating arguably the most fearsome lineup in the major leagues.

A month into the new season, Cruz has proved his value and has already become a fan favorite among the Orioles faithful - so much so that he already has his own t-shirt night scheduled in for May 13 against the Detroit Tigers.

In 23 games, Cruz has a triple line of .284/.376/.956, which ranks behind only Matt Wieters. He's hit seven home runs and has 25 RBIs, comfortably the most of any Orioles hitter in both categories. Not only has his power been impressive, but the seven home runs have all come at crucial stages in games.

His first was a go-ahead solo bomb against the Red Sox on opening day, which ultimately proved to be the winning run, and his second was the very next game when his two-run shot in the fourth tied the game against Boston at 2-2.

His third came against the Red Sox again, this time in Boston, and it gave the Orioles the lead in the early innings. This bomb was an absolute monster, which not only cleared the Green Monster at Fenway, but actually left the ballpark. If they weren't already, all major league pitchers had now been put on notice.

Cruz's fourth came against the Blue Jays in Toronto on April 22, where in the sixth inning, his three-run shot off R.A. Dickey gave the Orioles a three-run lead.

His fifth and sixth came a day later, also against the Blue Jays, with one coming in the third inning with the Orioles trailing 6-2 and the other coming in the fifth, a grand slam to give the Orioles a 7-6 lead. Ultimately, Cruz's two homers and five RBIs helped the Orioles record a much-needed win despite the team's continuing struggles on the mound.

His seventh, a two-run bomb against the Kansas City Royals at Camden Yards on Sunday, briefly brought the Orioles back into a game they were trailing 4-0. It was another monster shot that traveled straight into the Orioles bullpen.

In total, five of his seven home runs have either given the Orioles the lead or tied the ballgame, and his situational hitting in the clutch has simply been second to none. This impressive clutch hitting has not just been limited to the longball either, as Cruz is 10-for-26 (.385) with runners in scoring position this season.

Prior to the season, Cruz had hit 157 home runs with his previous best coming in 2009, when he hit 33 with the Texas Rangers. During that memorable season, Cruz hit .259 with runners in scoring position - a mark which is considerably less than the figure he's achieved thus far in 2014.

The season is young, however Cruz's signing, a one-year deal worth approximately $8 million, is already proving to be a master stroke by Dan Duquette. The 33-year-old has proven he is far from a spent force and has many years of baseball ahead of him.

The value he brings to the team in 2014 is indisputable and there is really no reason why the Orioles should not pursue him for a longer-term deal come season's end. Of course, with Cruz's success comes with it a highly competitive market; however, the Orioles have shown in the last few months that they're prepared to spend the money if warranted.

Talks still need to occur with Chris Davis, Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy. However, the way Cruz is performing, he warrants the same level of interest and effort as that of his fellow offensive weapons. Just like Davis, Wieters and Hardy, while Cruz is in the Orioles lineup and lurking on deck, it's safe to say no game is out of reach.

Daniel Clark blogs about the Orioles at The Big Leagues Daily from Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @DC_TBLDaily. His thoughts on the O's appear here as part of MASNsports.com's continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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