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Rays free agent target: Nelson Cruz

Cruz is a free agent... should the Rays be interested?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Nelson Cruz is a 38-year-old designated hitter.

On the surface, that should be enough to rule him out as a player of interest for the Tampa Bay Rays. But this is not an ordinary 38-year-old DH. This is Nelson Cruz. Cruz has played major league ball for 14 seasons, most of it with the Texas Rangers and the Seattle Mariners. In that time he has been a six-time All-Star, the MVP of the 2012 ALCS, and a two-time Silver Slugger winner.

Nelson Cruz can hit. Just plain and simple.

And his age hasn’t slowed him considerably. Though his 2018 campaign can’t be called impressive, hitting .256/.342/.509 (that slugging percentage, though!), it’s worth pointing out that he still hit 37 home runs, good enough to tie him for ninth place in all of baseball.

For comparison’s sake, the only Rays hitter to get 30 home runs was C.J. Cron.

Nelson Cruz also collected 97 RBIs. Cron again came closes to this with 74. The next best was Joey Wendle a 61. And that so-so season for Cruz? He had a better batting average than Jake Bauers, Kevin Kiermaier, Carlos Gomez, and C.J. Cron. And again, this is in a season that is hardly the best by Cruz’s career standards.

Yes. Nelson Cruz is 38 years old and offers no real outfield depth, but the Rays have all the outfield depth they need right now. This past season may have been a sign of what to expect going forward from Cruz as he approaches the twilight of his career, but even end-of-career Nelson Cruz would be a very valuable piece to add to the Rays roster.

Let’s see how his 2018 numbers stacked up against other Rays designated hitters.

Nelson Cruz vs. Rays DHs

Nelson Cruz 0.256 0.342 0.509 97 37 134
C.J. Cron 0.253 0.323 0.493 74 30 122
Ji-Man Choi 0.263 0.357 0.505 32 10 135

I’m not going to lie. I was stunned by Ji-Man Choi’s wRC+ here. Choi also had by far the fewest plate appearances of the three men, with only 189. Cron has 560, and Cruz 591, so while Choi’s numbers are impressive, it also represents a much smaller sample size.

I think, perhaps, where the appeal of Cruz lies, is truly in those hits. A guy who can get that many home runs, and that many RBIs, for a team that so frequently loses games by a single run, is the kind of player the Rays ought to be taking a good long look at, because as JT Morgan wrote this morning, outside of catchers the Rays are looking for upgrades.

If we are only considering 2019, is Cruz more valuable than Cron?

Given his age, he is unlikely to be offered any long-term deals. He is at the end of a four-year deal with the Mariners that saw him receiving $14.25MM a year for each of those years. Cruz is a big name, but one winding down his career, so he probably isn’t expecting any huge price tags, and a team would be out of their mind to sign him to anything longer than a two-year contract.

C.J. Cron is projected to make $5.2MM in arbitration this year, and most experts agree he probably won’t be making that money with the Rays, as the team is likely to move on from his arbitration driven contract. It’s hard to imagine Nelson Cruz signing for less than $6MM for a single season, so if finances are the true bottom line here, don’t expect to see the Rays make an offer on Cruz. But if the Rays are looking to make a couple splashes and want a one-year commitment with a strong veteran presence, Cruz fits the bill.

Cruz is a name that will sell jerseys, and would be an interesting offseason target for a club that needs to take these low dollar risks on aging stars, not unlike Carlos Gomez in 2018.

If the Rays are indeed moving on from C.J. Cron, a logical replacement is Nelson Cruz.