Will the Mariners re-sign Nelson Cruz? Should they re-sign Nelson Cruz? Beat writer Ryan Divish answers that and more questions on Mike Zunino's future, the offseason ahead and his favorite authors in this week's mailbag.
ANAHEIM — The final two weeks of the season and the Twitter mailbag wants to finish strong despite no hope of the postseason — well, unless the bosses say otherwise.
As always, these are real questions from the group of unique souls that follow me on Twitter.
Get your questions in by tweeting at @RyanDivish
September 23 | Searching for prospects and bright spots from 2018 season
September 2 | Why didn't M's go all-in before August waiver deadline?
It’s something they should definitely consider beyond my reasoning that Cruz is one of the best humans I’ve covered in any sport.
Manager Scott Servais was blunt: “I’d love to have him back.”
Even though he’ll be 39 next season, Cruz continues to produce at an above-average level. This season hasn’t been quite to his high standards in some aspects. His .263 batting average is down from the .290-. 300s, which is his goal. But his on-base plus slugging percentage of .886 is the best on the team to go with 17 doubles, a triple, 36 homers and 89 RBI. Twice in his four years with the Mariners he’s reached 40 homers and driven in 100 runs. He could still reach those levels with two weeks left in the season.
When general manger Jack Zduriencik signed Cruz to a four-year, $57 million contract, some in the baseball industry scoffed at the length of the deal. The Orioles offered more money per year but only three years. The thinking was that Cruz’s age would lead to a decline in that third and fourth year. It didn’t happen.
In terms of production, Cruz is the best free-agent signing in Mariners’ history. Despite the punitive nature of FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement when measuring designated hitters, Cruz has still produced 12.2 WAR in four seasons with the Mariners.
Beyond the numbers, his good-natured personality, maniacal work ethic when it comes to conditioning and pregame routine and his imposing aura, he is a major presence in the clubhouse and a leader that doesn’t need to say many words.
“When there are times to speak up in a team meeting, he’s not afraid to,” Servais said. “Certainly when he speaks, people listen.”
He dealt with two fluky injuries — a sprained ankle after slipping on the dugout steps and an elbow contusion after getting hit by multiple pitches — to go with some back spasms and neck issues. But he still played in 130 games.
If the Mariners don’t get an extension done before the free-agent period begins, the odds of Cruz’s return lessens significantly once other teams can enter the equation.
I guess I’m “Divvyboy” and I have no idea who “Ms. Slippy Dippy” is. The Mariners? Jerry Dipoto? Oh well, I’ve been doing Twitter long enough to translate through made-up nicknames, abbreviations, pop culture references that I don’t get and emojis. I hate emojis. If you are over age 30, you shouldn’t be using emojis … this includes your texts too, Mr. Dipoto.
Given his age, a two-year contract for Cruz might be the most he could get on the open market. But because he’s a full-time designated hitter, his market is limited to teams in the American League. And of those 15 AL teams, maybe six to eight have the finances and roster flexibility to bring on a full-time designated hitter. Giving Cruz a two-year deal for $35 million might be what the Mariners have to do to keep him.
Seattle had some interest in getting a deal done with Cruz after last season and going into spring training. Sources said they were willing to do a David Ortiz-style contract of $17-18 million per season with an attainable vesting option of 400 to 450 at-bats for the next season. But that deal never culminated.
This will likely be Cruz’s last major contract. And with the remaining seasons in his career dwindling due to age, the desire to play for a winning team with legit World Series hopes is a motivation.
Obviously, the Mariners haven’t shown that they can be that team during Cruz’s tenure. They’ve barely shown him that they’re a playoff-level team.
From an unbiased standpoint, the best fit for Cruz is the … Houston Astros.
Think about Nelson Cruz in Minute Maid Park for 81 games. He’s already familiar with the American League West. His offseason home is in Arlington, Texas. With Evan Gattis and Marwin Gonzalez headed for free agency after this season, the Astros have an opening at designated hitter. Cruz is the type of finishing player you add to a good roster to push it to great. Add Cruz to a lineup that already has Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel, yikes. The Astros did something similar with Carlos Beltran in 2018. Cruz is still a much more productive hitter now than Beltran was when the Astros signed him.
The Yankees, Red Sox and Indians don’t seem like fits given their current roster setup. Houston or Seattle probably offer the best fit. It could come down to years offered or where Cruz feels like he has best chance to win.
All things being equal, where would you go?
A lot of people want to blow it up and rebuild, but the Mariners aren’t really in a good position to tear it down and start over. It’s something Larry Stone addressed in his column last week. The changes to the MLB amateur draft and international signings make rebuilding more difficult compared to when the Cubs and Astros decided to start over. It’s evened the playing field.
Here’s who people want the Mariners to trade in a rebuild:
- Felix Hernandez ($27.5 million, age 32)
- Robinson Cano ($120 million, age 35)
- Kyle Seager ($57.5 million, age 30)
- Jean Segura ($58 million, age 28)
- Dee Gordon ($27.8 million, age 30)
The figure in parentheses is what these players are owed on their contracts. It makes them largely untradeable. We saw the growing reluctance for teams to take on major contracts via trade last offseason. These players’ age, performance and money owed are not attractive. Seattle would have to assume a healthy portion of any of these contracts in a trade. Any prospect return would be midlevel at best.
Now here’s the players that teams would want from the Mariners and might draw the biggest return in a trade:
James Paxton — He has two years left of club control in arbitration eligibility and is a front-of-the-rotation starter when healthy. But his injury history lessens his value. A team that felt it was one front-line starter away from being finished might be willing to give up something for Paxton.
Edwin Diaz — The young closer’s value will never be higher. He still has one more season before starting his three years of arbitration eligibility. That’s four years of club control. Teams have become smarter when it comes to trading for closers, knowing the fickle nature of relievers’ performances from season to season.
Mitch Haniger — His first full season has shown that he’s an outfielder capable of putting up All-Star numbers. His obsessive preparation routine, his diligent offseason work and his ultraserious mentality are all characteristics that teams love. Like Diaz, a team would have four years of control of Haniger — one at the minimum and three years of arbitration eligibility. Haniger’s age — he turns 28 on Dec. 23 — is an issue for any team acquiring him and looking to extend him. But if you only want four seasons of control at a discounted rate, he’s perfect.
Also, it’s instructive to note that with more teams blowing their rosters up, tanking and starting over, the market is flooded with teams trying to dump older players and get back prospects. General managers have also become more reluctant to trade prospects.
There’s a growing sentiment on Twitter that the Mariners should move on from their young catcher because of his failures at the plate — a sub .200 average and 37.2 strikeout percentage.
The Mariners simply won’t designate him for assignment or waive him. That would be colossally stupid. He’s got two more years of club control.
If you are moving on from Zunino, you’d package him in a trade. He has more value than fans think because of his above-average defensive skills, including high-level framing and an improved ability to control the running game. Throw in his power potential and teams will happily take a chance on him. But given Zunino’s struggles at the plate, do you trade him with a lowered value?
Servais thinks the idea is nonsense. The idea of not having Zunino to handle his pitching staff isn’t something he finds ideal.
“The state of catching in today’s game, he brings so much to the table with what he does behind the plate — the game-calling, the throwing arm is good and he has the physical attributes you look for out of a guy back there,” he said. “Offensively, it’s frustrating for him and frustrating to watch, and really just the lack of contact. When he hits it, it’s usually hit hard because he’s that strong. I don’t get why people say you walk away from him, that it’s never going to happen. Well we’ve seen it happen for him.”
Servais, a former catcher, believes that Zunino is still trying to catch up from a bad development plan from the previous regime, which rushed him to the big leagues prematurely. Throw in the myriad swing changes he’s undergone, and it’s stunted his growth.
“I’ve often said catchers figure it out later, and that’s the most frustrating part because we thought he was on the verge of taking that next step,” Servais said.
You could also look at it this way: Who would the Mariners replace Zunino with as the starting catcher? They don’t have a catcher in the organization that can step forward and fill the responsibilities behind the plate at a level similar to Zunino. They had to go out and get David Freitas and Chris Herrmann in the offseason to provide upper-level depth.
Given the Mariners’ financial issues — the money already owed to several players for next season — spending $30 million for a 30-year-old Yasmani Grandal or 31-year-old Wilson Ramos might not be the best investment.
So right now, I think Zunino is the opening day catcher in 2019.
Will the Mariners EVER make the playoffs?
— (@_ruelz) September 13, 2018
Well, if you are going by “EVER” then yes, the Mariners will make the playoffs because they have made the playoffs four times — 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2001. Now if you are asking if the Mariners will ever make the playoffs again, that’s a little less certain. This season may have been their best chance. They used some luck and banked a bunch of wins early to build an 11 1/2 game lead in the second wild card. They regressed to the mean, and the Oakland A’s turned into the best team in baseball at the same time.
On the morning of June 16, the Mariners were 45-25 and 11 games up on the A’s, who were 34-36. The Mariners faded, going to 36-41 while Oakland stormed to a 56-22 record during that same time. To match the pace the A’s set, the Mariners would have had to gone 45-32.
So what do these numbers mean? Not much, other than the Mariners could win 85-plus games this season and not get the second wild card. The last time 90 wins was needed for a second wild card spot was 2013.
Why do I say all this? Well because the typical bar to reach the postseason isn’t exactly the same as summiting Everest. Though you wonder if a sherpa might provide a better organizational route and plan.
The Mariners are capable of being a mid-80s win team next season, which puts them in the wild-card conversation.
While I don’t believe the A’s will revert to 90-loss seasons, I don’t know that they’ll be this good next season, particularly with the issues surrounding their starting pitching this year and beyond. They’ll also be losing Fernando Rodney and Jeurys Familia — two key pieces to that lockdown bullpen — to free agency.
Realistically, the Astros, Red Sox and Indians should be favored to win their respective divisions again in 2019. That leaves the Yankees, A’s, Angels, Mariners, Rays and maybe the Twins and Blue Jays as candidates for the wild card games.
To still be better than a happy soccer existence?
Well, hotel bars that close at 11 p.m. are worse than any conditioning shampoo. Given how much they overcharge for a drink, you’d think they would want to stay open even a few more hours. Also Marriott’s affiliation with Starbucks is less than ideal for me.
Leisure reading during the season is difficult, but I was reading “The Bartender’s Tale” by Ivan Doig before my mom stole it when she came to visit last week. He’s one of my favorite authors.
Not sure if I mentioned this before on a mailbag, but Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated was my initial inspiration to become a sports writer. He was the inspiration for many journalists my age.
I even remember the moment that I knew I wanted to do this. I was sitting in study hall as a sophomore at Havre High School, reading Smith’s story “Shadow of a Nation,” which was about high-school basketball on the Crow reservation. He wrote about players I knew about and followed in the local newspapers. But I had no idea or concept of the real story of their lives, which was heartbreaking and bleak. Smith’s writing was so different and his storytelling captivated me. I read it once. And read it again. I kept that issue in my room. I have his book of his collected writings, “Beyond the Game” that I will still go back and read.
Beyond sports, I’m also a big fan of John Steinbeck. My well-worn copy of East of Eden is filled with underlines, notes and marks.
As for writing a book, it seems like a daunting task. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Given the length of the season and job requirements, it might not be feasible now. Hopefully Larry Stone writes a Mariners-related book soon.