Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales And The Market

New TV deals have made baseball richer than ever, and teams are passing on some of those riches to free agents. $240MM for Robinson Cano. $153MM for Jacoby Ellsbury. Possibly over $100MM for Masahiro Tanaka. Heck, $35MM for Tim Lincecum. $32MM for Jason Vargas. But it appears not everyone has been invited to the party. Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales seem to be on the outside looking in.

As a free agent, Cruz has four problems. First, he's no help defensively — he's below-average even when compared to other right fielders, posting negative UZR numbers in all of the past three seasons. Second, he's 33 and projects to age badly, as an offensively-minded player who doesn't actually hit all that well. Third, his ties to the Biogenesis scandal might raise questions about his immediate future. And fourth, the team that signs him will have to forfeit a draft pick.

There have been indications that Cruz wants a four-year, $75MM contract. That doesn't appear to be in the cards now — it's difficult to land huge deals this late in the offseason, and one report from December suggested that Cruz was willing to accept a three-year deal from the Rangers.

But one win above replacement is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $6MM or $7MM on the open market, so for Cruz to justify even the three-year, $39MM deal MLBTR projected he would get, he would have to produce about six wins over the life of the deal, even before considering the draft pick.

Even 6 WAR seems like an optimistic projection over the next three years. Cruz has produced WAR figures of 1.3, 1.1 and 1.5 the past three seasons. Even a three-year deal for Cruz looks unlikely at this point, and he may only get one if a team gets desperate, or determines that the escalating price of free agents and Cruz's counting stats make him worth that kind of money.

Morales is even more defensively limited than Cruz, having played 28 games in the field in 2012 and 31 in 2013 in the aftermath of significant injury troubles that caused him to miss the entire 2011 season. This far removed from any serious injury, he might be able to handle more time in the field than that, but that's mostly a matter of speculation at this point.

On top of that, there's the matter of the qualifying offer. By declining it, Morales rejected a one-year, $14.1MM deal, despite the fact that he was arguably worth less than that last season, producing 1.2 WAR. Even leaving aside the draft pick, it would be ambitious for Morales to use an amount more than $14.1MM per season as a starting point for negotiations on a multi-year contract, or even on a one-year contract. Accepting the qualifying offer might have been a better path for him.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports recently wrote about the qualifying offer system "squeezing" certain free agents, and it is, as in the case of Kyle Lohse last year and Stephen Drew this year. But it's worth mentioning that, in the past two offseasons, no one has actually accepted a qualifying offer yet. Perhaps certain types of players, like Morales, should consider accepting qualifying offers if they receive them. A bigger problem than getting "squeezed" may turn out to be that the expectations of some free agents are out of step with the market. Morales is arguably not worth $14.1MM per season to begin with. 

Then add in the draft pick. Unless Cruz or Morales re-sign with their old teams, the teams that sign them will have to give up a draft pick apiece, probably in the last two-thirds of the first round or shortly thereafter. A recent study found that the Nos. 16-30 picks in the June draft have surplus values of a little over $7MM. For players like Robinson Cano or Jacoby Ellsbury, whose value dwarfs the value of the pick, the qualifying offer is not a significant concern. But for a player like Morales, whose value is not so much greater than that of the draft pick anyway, this is a big problem.

A further issue for Cruz and Morales is the lack of teams available to sign them. Those problems were magnified when the Mariners, who like all-bat players more than most other clubs, acquired Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. Now there are few fits for Cruz, and even fewer for Morales. And purely as a practical matter, the market for Morales is limited, because it's not clear whether he can be an everyday player in the National League.

It also might be that, as with the closer market, the market for all-bat players and 30-something sluggers is correcting itself to a degree. A team need look no further than Ryan Howard's five-year, $125MM deal with the Phillies to see why signing an aging slugger of limited athleticism might turn out to be a problem. Or Travis Hafner's four-year, $57MM deal with the Indians, or Albert Pujols' ten-year, $240MM contract with Angels. Sometimes, these sorts of players remain productive through their mid-30s — who would have thought David Ortiz would age so well? But often they don't, and that's even before considering Cruz and Morales are nowhere near as well-rounded offensively as Pujols or Ortiz.

In this market, the two players most comparable to Cruz and Morales were probably Mike Napoli and Carlos Beltran. Like Cruz and Morales, Napoli and Beltran are both sluggers confined to corner positions, although they're also better offensively than Cruz and Morales are (and Napoli is superior defensively as well). Napoli received two years and $32MM, getting fewer years than we expected, though at a higher average annual value. Beltran got three and $45MM. We projected Beltran would get two years and $30MM, which suggests that the market hasn't hurt every defensively-challenged slugger.

It's pretty late in the game for Cruz and Morales to cash in the way Beltran did, though. Earlier today, the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo wrote that, in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal, Cruz might ultimately settle for a one-year deal, hoping to prove himself post-PEDs, and then hit the free-agent market again next year.

It's unclear what he'll find when he gets there. With free-agent salaries exploding, it's easy to imagine a world where teams see Cruz's 27 homers and 76 RBIs, or Morales' 23 and 80, and offer them big-money deals. But that does not appear to be the world in which we live, at least not this offseason. Cruz's and Morales' predicaments may primarily be the results of their individual circumstances (Cruz's Biogenesis ties, a lack of obvious fits for Morales) and not the start of a trend. But it may also be that defensively-challenged sluggers, especially ones with good-but-not-outstanding bats, may have trouble getting their usual slice of the free-agent pie, especially when qualifying offers are also a concern.



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