SEATTLE — A Mariners fan texted me Tuesday afternoon with a simple question shortly after the club announced a contract extension with veteran left-handed pitcher Wade LeBlanc.
“Now when are they going to do something about (Nelson) Cruz?”
It’s a reasonable query. Cruz, even at 38, remains a potent run-production bat, and he is in the final season of a four-year, $57-million deal. And the Mariners, for their part, have shown a willingness to negotiate in-season extensions.
Not just low-risk extensions, either, like LeBlanc’s $2.5 million guarantee for next season. A year ago, the Mariners signed shortstop Jean Segura to a five-year extension for $70 million.
Further, fitting a new deal for Cruz into future payrolls doesn’t appear to be a problem, particularly when the market last winter for power hitters — let alone power-hitting DHs — proved tepid at best.
Asked what Cruz could reasonably expect in a new deal, a front-office official from a rival club told me that he’d do well to maintain his $14 million annual salary and doubted any club would offer more than two years.
That’s one person’s guess, and it could be wrong, but both sides will be closely monitoring the market and, if/when talks get serious, will have a good idea of Cruz’s value.
This much seems certain: If the Mariners truly want to keep Cruz, it’s hard to envision him being out of their price range. The question, though, is more basic: Do the Mariners want to keep him?
While concerns exist regarding Cruz’s age, health and, consequently, his ability to maintain his current production level, the bigger issue might be whether he remains a good fit on the club’s anticipated roster.
Cruz is a DH. Period. His days as an outfielder, with rare exceptions, are over, and a full-time DH, no matter how productive, limits roster flexibility, which is a quality the Mariners prize.
Now throw Robinson Cano into the equation.
The Mariners’ surge during Cano’s current 80-game suspension, which runs to Aug. 14, makes it tempting to minimize his value.
That’s probably a mistake because, even with Cano’s suspension, he and Cruz have produced roughly the same WAR (wins above replacement) rating to date in their three-plus years as teammates.
But even if you view Cano as damaged goods and believe he must reestablish his value as he closes in on his 36th birthday, he is also under contract for five more seasons at $24 million a year and enjoys full no-trade protection.
It’s hard to see him going anywhere.
Club officials have long believed that Cano, because of declining range and quickness, would eventually shift from second base to either first base or duty as a designated hitter.
A top Mariners official once said such a move would likely come one year later than it should because Cano must accept the need to make such a move. That was an understandable nod to Cano’s presence and stature.
The suspension, however, changes the landscape. The Mariners are proving they can win without Cano. When he returns, he will be the one who needs to fit in. But fit in where?
The final six weeks this season will likely be a mishmash. General manager Jerry Dipoto has already said Dee Gordon will continue to see some time at second base because Cano, due to his suspension, is ineligible for postseason.
It will be interesting to see how that plays out.
The long-term view suggests any move to pursue a new deal with Cruz might hinge on the Mariners’ willingness to return Gordon, who is under club control through 2021, to center field on a full-time basis.
Look, the Mariners might do exactly that: Sign Cruz and move Gordon back to center field — but that’s no easy call.
Gordon is proving to be a smooth fit at second base since replacing Cano. (That’s no surprise; Gordon was a Gold Glove winner as a second baseman in 2015 at Miami.)
Putting Gordon in center field not only returns Cano, with declining defensive skills, to second base but also pushes Guillermo Heredia, the club’s best defensive outfielder, back into platoon duty in left field with Ben Gamel.
It’s also worth noting that right fielder Mitch Haniger has been more than capable when shifted into center field, and that the Mariners have two strong defensive center fielders, Ian Miller and Braden Bishop, in the upper minors.
Club officials once viewed first base as a likely landing spot for Cano, but that was before they acquired Ryon Healy, who has been solid and is under club control through 2022.
Remember, too, that Evan White, a first-round pick in 2017 whom Dipoto likens to a young Todd Helton, is fast-tracking through the pipeline and could be in line for a big-league camp invite as soon as next spring.
That leaves designated hitter — and if that’s what it comes down to, that’s no choice at all. Cano is under contract for five more years. Cruz is a pending free agent.