A player that got away is still raking years later

Here is something pretty remarkable. Nelson Cruz, who remains a feared hitter at 40, is about to sign his third contract since leaving the Orioles. In the offseason following the 2014 season, the Orioles, coming off an appearance in the American League Championship Series, had big decisions to make.

One was whether to re-sign Cruz and how far to go to get him. They made a significant three-year offer, but were reluctant to go four years on the deal. The Seattle Mariners however, would go four years and they got Cruz for $57 million.

Some felt the Orioles were right to hold the line on a three-year deal for the then 33-year-old Cruz. At that age, there was no way he could keep up such strong production for the entire length of that deal, they felt. But he did. Then, after his age-37 season, Cruz signed a one-year deal with a team option for a second year with Minnesota. Now, after two years (and earning $26 million) with the Twins, he’s a free agent again.

Cruz will turn 41 on July 1. But he remains one of the game’s best hitters and any American League team that needs a DH has to at least take a look. If Major League Baseball decides to keep the universal designated hitter - a decision not yet made - Cruz’s market could grow considerably. At 40. Yes, that is remarkable.

Cruz is not getting older, he’s getting better.

cruz-pointing-up-gray-back-sidebar.jpgHe was a productive hitter and team leader on the 2014 Orioles, mentoring younger players like Jonathan Schoop and Manny Machado. When he talked, they listened. He was a fan favorite for his strong play and a media favorite for his constant availability for interviews and candor when he provided them. He was and is a complete class act.

A year or two after Cruz had left the Orioles, I went looking for him in the Mariners clubhouse to get a quote for a story. He was lying on a couch listening to music. He saw me across the room and waved. He then leaped up and practically sprinted in my direction.

“Do you need me?” he said.

I told him I wanted to ask him a few quick questions but didn’t mean to interrupt him and I could wait or come back later. “Hey, let’s do it now,” he said. “What do you need?”

One of the best players, it turned out, was one of the nicest and most accommodating for media.

On the field for that O’s team, he batted .271/.333/.525 with 40 homers, 108 RBIs and an OPS of .859. He led the majors in homers and finished third in RBIs. At 33, he had a career year for him to that point. He set single-season career highs in runs (87), hits (166), home runs, RBIs, extra-base hits (74) and total bases (322), and tied his career high with 159 games played. He hit the second-most homers by an Oriole in his first season with the club, behind Frank Robinson’s 49 in 1966.

If you recall, the O’s had signed him to a one-year deal for only $8 million. Cruz was coming off a 50-game suspension during the 2013 season for his part in the Biogenesis scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs. He was considered damaged goods at the time and the O’s got him on the cheap, so to speak. Then-general manager Dan Duquette described it as a “platform deal.” The O’s were giving Cruz a platform to show he could still be productive after the scandal.

He was very productive. But in the end, the O’s would not pony up a four-year deal and Cruz headed for Seattle.

“Nelson Cruz had a nice year for us,” Duquette said in December 2014 after Cruz signed with the Mariners. “He did a nice job and helped us accomplish a number of things - winning the division and advancing in the playoffs. We appreciate his contributions to the team. He did well and he had a great year.

“In free agency, there’s always a premium and we were focused on a three-year commitment. Nelson got four from another team. Obviously, he took it and we wish him a lot of luck and appreciate the work he did here. The team is going to get a first-round pick and he helped us accomplish a number of things this year, which we appreciate.”

By the way, with the No. 36 pick in the 2015 draft the O’s got for losing Cruz, they selected Florida high school shortstop Ryan Mountcastle.

Cruz would prove the Mariners right in making their four-year offer. He was productive for all four seasons for the M’s, hitting 163 homers with 414 RBIs, a .284 batting average and a .908 OPS.

In 2019, his age-38 season, he hit .311/.392/.639 with 41 homers, 108 RBIs and a 1.031 OPS. His OPS+ for the 2014 Orioles was 137, or 37 percent better than the league. That number in 2019 was 168. This past season, it was 169.

In 2020, when Cruz turned 40 on July 1, he batted .303/.397/.595 for the Twins with 16 homers, 33 RBIs and with an OPS of .992. He finished seventh in the AL in batting, third in OBP, fifth in slugging and fourth in OPS. At 40. If you take his 60-game numbers and multiply them by 2.7 to get 162 games, he would have 43 homers and 89 RBIs.

Cruz posted an OPS of .859 for the division champion Orioles in 2014. Since leaving Baltimore and starting with the 2015 season, he has posted these OPS numbers: .936, .915, .924, .850, 1.031 and .992.

That is remarkable.

Now Cruz is said to be looking for a two-year contract. He might just get it. Some of us thought he wouldn’t get four years after the 2014 season. We were so very wrong.

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