SEATTLE — It’s a short leap from the buzz surrounding Ichiro Suzuki’s recent not-quite retirement to examining the Mariners’ looming (though by no means imminent) roster decision regarding designated hitter Nelson Cruz.
It figures to be an interesting dance because while Cruz remains a productive cleanup hitter as he plays through the final season of a four-year contract, he also turns 38 on July 1.
And this is business.
“I want to play as long as my body lets me play,” Cruz said. “Your body will tell you when you can’t play anymore. Right now, I feel good. I work hard to keep my body in the best shape I can.”
That’s a constant battle.
Cruz missed nine games last month because of a sprained right ankle and has long battled various leg ailments. For all of that, he’s been a lot more durable than you might imagine: averaging more than 154 games over the last three seasons.
Why bring this up now?
The Mariners have no other major in-house personnel matter on their plate. Every key member of their current roster except Cruz is under club control through next year; several are under club control for several seasons.
Nor does the club have a ready in-house replacement for Cruz, who was chosen as an All-Star last season for the fourth time in five years before winning his second Silver Slugger award in three seasons.
Cruz said he’s not heard from the Mariners regarding a new contract, which isn’t surprising at this point, but let’s assume the club has interest.
Why wouldn’t the Mariners be interested in retaining a big run-production bat in the middle of their lineup when they lack a viable alternative?
Well...it’s not as simple as it sounds, although the length of a new contract shouldn’t be a stumbling block since it’s hard to envision the Mariners, or any club, going longer than two years when doing so would push the deal into Cruz’s 40s.
Further, power hitters found the market to be tight last winter, which figures to continue, and, worse for Cruz, the pending list of free agents offers a lot of options. So, again, figure two years; at most, maybe two years and a vesting option.
The crunch in any upcoming negotiations figures to be dollars.
This is likely to be Cruz’s last major contract and, not only will he be seeking a big payday, he probably feels he’s been underpaid over the length of his current deal — and, if so, he’s probably right about that.
A belief that Cruz’s power wouldn’t translate to Safeco Field depressed his value when he previously became a free agent after a breakout 2014 season at Baltimore that included a then-career-best 40 homers.
Former Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, when Cruz signed, pointed to 25-30 homers as a reasonable expectation. Zduriencik wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t a knock. Zduriencik was delighted to add that sort of production to the lineup.
Cruz responded by by hammering 126 homers over his first three years in Seattle, an average of 42 a season, and currently has seven this year in in 24 games.
Some perspective: Alex Rodriguez hit 41 homers in 2000 — Safeco’s first full season — and no Mariner reached 40 again until Cruz hit a career-high 44 in 2015.
It isn’t just homers.
Cruz has a .290/.365/.555 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) since arriving in the Northwest. All three slashes are significantly higher than his pre-Mariners’ production of .268/.328/.501 over 11 seasons.
In short, the Mariners are getting Cruz’s prime years, and the industry’s dollar value assigned to the wins above replacement (WAR) metric suggests the club has been getting a bargain.
None of that is likely to matter in upcoming talks.
Clubs once typically used past performance as a negotiating cornerstone in the apparent Boras-fueled fiction that players would continue to perform at peak levels even as they aged. Analytics now offer hard proof that such a belief is nonsense.
That means the Mariners (and any other club) will push for a deal in line with Cruz’s projected production going forward. Further, those analytic projections typically lean more heavily on the latest year.
That means Cruz needs to avoid a statistical decline this season just to match (or approach) his current $14 million salary. It also means the Mariners likely want to see a significant portion of this season play out before entering serious talks.
Yes, some major deals get done during the season.
The Mariners reached an agreement last June with Jean Segura on a five-year extension. In doing so, they gained cost certainty by buying out two years of arbitration on a shortstop, then 27, entering what figured to be his peak seasons.
None of that applies with Cruz.
The Mariners have no reason not to wait and see whether he remains healthy and productive as the season unfolds. Even if he plays to form, the pending market might offer younger players with similar skills in roughly the same price range.
So Cruz waits.
“I’d like to stay here,” he said, “but it’s a business. So you never know.”