Growing up, our parents and coaches often pounded into us an old saying, “Cheaters never win”. Well, the merit of that lesson are about to be tested when outfielders Melky Cabrera and Nelson Cruz hit the free agent market this winter.
As well know, both Cabrera and Cruz received lengthy suspension from Major League Baseball for the usage of performance-enhancing substances, with the former losing the last part of the 2012 season when he tested positive for synthetic testosterone while with the San Francisco Giants and the latter sitting out the end of 2013 due to his involvement with the Biogenesis scandal. Both players lost dearly on the free agent market the following seasons, as Cabrera had to settle for a 2-year, $16 million deal from the Toronto Blue Jays and Cruz got a 1-year, $8 million deal from the Baltimore Orioles.
Now, both deals were inked with the sole intention of trying to rebuild their value and re-enter the market without the shadow of steroids hanging over them. The rebuilding phase, while a rocky start for Cabrera, was still obviously a success on both fronts, with both players putting up excellent seasons, as shown below.
Now we’re about to see if either one of them can truly escape what has previously been a lingering shadow. I’ll start with Melky Cabrera, if for no other reason that my familiarity with him as a member of the Blue Jays.
As I touched on before, the 30-year-old Cabrera struggled mightily in 2013, hampered by what was later revealed to be a benign tumor on his spine. He was a completely different man in 2014 however, raising his batting average nearly 30 points and his slugging nearly 100 points. With 176 hits, the left fielder currently sits 8th in the American League in total hits despite missing mostly all of September due to a broken finger.
That all said, even at 30-years-old, Melky Cabrera still carries some risk. Being that he was such a solid stick this season, you’d expect that he’d be worth more than 2.6 wins above replacement. However, those 30-year-old legs play very old and they severely limited Cabrera’s defensive abilities in left field. While it was a drastic improvement over the Cabrera of 2013, his Ultimate Zone Rating of -6.5 was still less than ideal and his -5 Defenseive Runs Saved were identical to his output a season ago when he could barely move.
Call to the Pen
Regardless, Melky is still one of just a few premiere bats on the market this winter, and one the Blue Jays obviously feel they will struggle to replace next season should he depart. For that reason, they will extend him a qualifying offer this winter, worth about $15 million, and will likely try to negotiate an extended deal with him. A four-year deal worth about $13 million will be a good deal for the Blue Jays, but he’s likely to be worth closer to the $15 million per year on the open market, or could negotiate for that 5th year.
Nelson Cruz has a little bit of a different situation brewing for himself.
With 39 home runs, 103 RBI, and a wRC+ of 135, Nelson Cruz has certainly played the part of a more valuable player. His Fangraphs WAR of 3.6 would attest to that. And at just $8 million in 2014, he has proven to be the biggest bargain signing of the past winter, and we wouldn’t even be discussing the Orioles in the playoffs if it wasn’t for Cruz.
However, Nelson Cruz is 34-years-old right now, a full 4-years older than Cabrera. Given the rapid decline of big-bodied sluggers in their 30’s over the last several seasons, not to mention those that have past involvement with PED’s, Cruz’s market may develop slowly and may not be as lucrative as Cabrera’s. Also like Cabrera, he’ll carry the baggage of a qualifying offer, but it will weigh heavier on him. Teams will be hesitant to hand Cruz a 4-year deal at this point in his career AND surrender a draft pick in the process. That’s why it made sense to hear that Cruz was engaging the Orioles about an extension now and would be wise to take it if given to him, even if it comes at a discounted rate.
Discounts aside, both players are likely to take advantage of a poor hitters market to still reel in a deal that puts their previous settlements to shame. If baseball has anything in regards to players, it is a short memory. Jhonny Peralta proved that last winter, and the pair of Cruz and Cabrera will test it once again during this Hot Stove season.
We’ll find out just how short it is in a few months.