TACOMA, WA. — Let’s see if we’ve got this straight.
News item: The Mariners want to retain pending free-agent designated hitter Nelson Cruz.
General manager Jerry Dipoto was emphatic regarding the club’s interest recently in declaring: “I don’t think you could increase the chances we’d want to (keep Cruz)…Everybody wants Nelson here, there’s no question about that.”
News item: Cruz would like to stay put.
“He’s happy in Seattle and wants to stay there,” Bryce Dixon, who represents Cruz, recently told Ryan Divish of The Seattle Times. “He’s hopeful we can work something out.
“From his perspective, he definitely wants to come back. He loves Seattle.”
News item: The Mariners haven’t talked to Cruz about a new contract. Dixon characterized the discussions as “nothing substantial,” while Cruz said: “No one has talked to me about it.”
Those are the reports and, look, I can verify from experience, that even with the best efforts by reporters, we often don’t get a complete picture. There is, typically, posturing on both sides. Maybe that’s what is happening here.
But taken at face value — and even accounting for some degree of spin — Mariners fans should look at these reports and scream: WHAT? They’re not even really talking? How does this make sense?
It doesn’t — particularly since the Mariners have been eliminated from postseason consideration (for, yes, a 17th straight year). If they were still in contention, then, OK, you push everything else to the back burner.
But this club should already be focusing on next year.
Another deep breath.
How else could this make sense? Well, if the Mariners had decided, for whatever reason, to move away from Cruz, that would be one thing. Maybe not the smart thing, given Cruz’s ongoing production, but Cruz will be 39 come next July.
Age matters. Power hitters, particularly, seem to fade in a hurry once they hit the chronological wall. Internal analytics might suggest Cruz is poised for a slide. If so, you could argue it’s better to cut ties a year too early rather than a year too late.
You could also build a case that the roster, as currently constructed, works better without Cruz. The Mariners are still tied to Robinson Cano for five more years but seem increasingly inclined, because of his age, to move him off second base.
Having Cano serve, at least part-time, as the designated hitter isn’t a bad plan. (In fact, it’s the obvious plan if the Mariners can’t reach an agreement with Cruz.)
The Mariners could also shift Cano to first base as they did this season on a few occasions once he returned from an 80-game suspension for a drug-policy violation.
That shift didn’t go so well, but Cano always displayed good footwork and a good glove at second base. Given a full spring to hone his skills, he could likely be average, and probably better, next year at first base.
The Mariners also still have a first baseman, of course, in Ryon Healy, who is under club control for four more years. Healy’s batting average and on-base percentage have been a disappointment, but he’s got 24 homers. That pop matters.
Now add first baseman/designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach whom, Dipoto insists, remains in the mix. But Vogelbach is out of options, which means he can’t be sent next year to the minors unless he clears waivers.
Let’s not even consider, at this point, first baseman Evan White, who might be the organization’s best prospect. White is probably at least a year away from getting a serious big-league look.
Lot of things could look a lot different a year from now.
Finding a place for Cano, Healy and possibly Vogelbach would, without question, be easier next season without Cruz on the roster. Whether that group could, collectively, replace his production is quite another matter.
Cruz owns a .286/.364/.549 slash over the last four years while averaging 41 homers and 102 RBIs. Getting that much additional production next year from Cano, Healy and Vogelbach is hard to imagine.
But even if you believe any of that chatter makes sense, Dipoto is on record saying the Mariners want to keep Cruz. If that’s the case, and if Cruz wants to stay, then WHY AREN’T THE TWO SIDES TALKING?
There are few good reasons for a club to hold in-season contract talks with a player, but the very best one is when it pertains to a pending free agent whom the club wants to keep and who’d like to stick around.
I’ve covered enough contract discussions to know that if both sides really want to reach a deal, a deal usually gets reached. Also, players who are comfortable in a setting, as Cruz appears to be, generally resist moving to a new club.
That’s not surprising, really. For most people in any field, if they like their job and where they live, it takes a pretty good offer to get them to move.
One factor that can change that, in sports, is if a player becomes convinced his current club has no chance to win. That’s not the case here. The Mariners are on pace to win about 90 games. They should be competitive again next year.
There’s still time to reach a deal, of course. The Mariners hold exclusive negotiating rights with Cruz until five days after the end of the World Series. Thereafter a free agent is permitted to negotiate and sign with any club.
It seems logical, at least to me, that Cruz or any free agent, even if they prefer to re-sign with their former club, would benefit in exploring the market. Doing so allows them to better gauge their value in any negotiations.
But if Cruz is willing to sign now, the Mariners, if they truly want to keep him, should jump at the chance to get a deal done.
Look, substantive talks could quickly hit a wall. Cruz might want more than the Mariners are willing to offer, particularly regarding the length of the deal. Or he might conclude the Mariners are lowballing him in regard to his market value.
Fine, then both sides can back off and wait for the market to set that value. At that point, both sides can reassess their interest in one another.
But if both sides are, as they indicate, open to a deal and, as Dixon contends, there has been “nothing substantial” in terms of discussion, that’s on the Mariners.
And if Cruz eventually signs elsewhere this offseason for terms at or near what the Mariners would be willing to match, that’s inexcusable.