Nelson Cruz might be a fit for the Tigers


Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Four weeks from today, the Detroit Tigers pitchers and catchers will be reporting to spring training in Lakeland, Fla., and the position players will be set to report four days later.

Until then, Major League Baseball is in its sleep mode, which occurs from the time after the holidays until players begin to report to spring training.  Not a whole lot goes on in that six week lull as many of the top free agents have been signed, and teams are filling out rosters.

With camp right around the corner, there is still a move or two that the Tigers can make to improve themselves for this season without having to make a long-term commitment.  In recent off seasons, the Tigers have made those hindering long-term deals that have inflated the salary cap.

The Tigers have been known to spend money on free agents in recent years, as their team salary has been in the top ten of all MLB teams since 2007.

This offseason, the Tigers did relieve themselves of $78 million in the long-run with the Prince FielderIan Kinsler swap (Fielder’s $168 million remaining deal minus the $62 million Kinsler’s owed as well as the $30 million the Tigers are sending to the Rangers to help pay part of Fielder’s contract).  The Rangers will receive $6 million per year for five seasons starting in 2016.

Although the Tigers relieved themselves of Fielder’s heavy contract and postseason struggles, the 29-year-old first baseman’s power will be surely missed.  Despite Fielder not having a 2013 season that lived up to his standards (career-low SLG% and OPS as well as fewest amount of walks since his rookie season), he was still the most powerful bat in the lineup not named Miguel Cabrera.

American League average slugging percentage in 2013 was .404 which was the lowest number since 1992.  The 2014 Detroit Tigers currently have four players other than Cabrera who slugged over league average.  So, that’s five total players for the Tigers who slugged above league average in 2013.

In comparison to the Tigers, the World Champion Boston Red Sox will have eight such players (nine if Stephen Drew resigns which is very possible) in 2014; the Cleveland Indians have six; the Toronto Blue Jays have five plus Brett Lawrie, who is looking to improve on his own slugging percentage of .397.

Low-payroll teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics even have seven and six,  respectively.

The four representatives for the Tigers other than the two-time MVP include: Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler and Austin Jackson.  In 2014, I expect Alex Avila to rise above the AL average bringing the total number to six, more respectable for a World Series contender.

Hunter, Kinsler and Jackson are not traditional middle of the order hitters, especially with the power the Tigers have had in their lineup in recent seasons; Martinez has been that middle of the order bat in the past.

The problem with the Tigers’ lineup is that their is no legit power threat outside of Cabrera, who is a natural three-hole hitter because of his ability to hit for average and power.  Even though Fielder was less productive than usual, his presence alone forced some teams to pitch to Cabrera, something the Tigers would like to happen as much as possible.

Is Martinez really a viable option to hit behind Cabrera? I don’t see him as that type of hitter.  He is an excellent contact hitter and knows how to get on base.  Since 2005, Martinez’s batting average has dipped below .300 only once (2008: played in only 73 games, 2012: out for season), and his wOBA only fell below .340 in 2008.

But, Martinez’s power numbers haven’t been as advertised, especially in a Tigers uniform.  He has only hit 25 home runs in a season once (2007 with Cleveland), and his slugging percentage has fallen .63 percentage points since 2010.  He has only hit 40 doubles in a season just twice.

Martinez is also heading into his age-35 season, and as he starts to age, the Tigers shouldn’t be asking him to be the second-best power hitter on the team, something he clearly isn’t at this point in his career.

I love Martinez’s bat and ability to get on base, but right now, Torii Hunter would be a better option in the clean up hole than Martinez.  Hunter had a higher SLG%, more home runs, more doubles and a higher wRC+.

With that said, the Tigers still have time to pick up a power hitter that can play either corner outfield, first base or designated hitter.  The perfect fit for the lineup is a more well-known player:

Nelson Cruz

Cruz, like Jhonny Peralta, had his season cut short last year due to a 50-game suspension.  In only 108 games, Cruz had a line of .266/.327/.506, 27 HR, 76 RBI and 122 wRC+(average is 100).  He did strike out at an alarming rate (23.9%), and projections don’t see that number improving.

Cruz was on pace for a 40-homer season in 2013, something only two guys–Chris Davis and Miguel Cabrera–could accomplish.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past three seasons, Cruz has mashed 80 home runs; Cabrera is the only one in his neighborhood (leads MLB with 118 over past three seasons).

Cruz does involve draft pick compensation which likely will fall in the late first round.  A study was released this summer on how valuable draft picks are.  A first round pick that falls at the back end of the round is worth a little more than $7 million.

Last year, 41% of Cruz’s hits were of the extra base variety, compared to Martinez, who had 27.5% of his hits go for extra bases, not quite the second-best power bat the Tigers want.

Cruz would also join Kinsler, a former Rangers teammate, giving him a familiar face in the clubhouse to settle in with.  The Tigers also have many Latino players which would make for a quick adjustment for Cruz as well.

He can be given a big one year deal as he has not been given the multi-year deal he had hoped for this offseason.  Yes, Cruz got caught using, but he served his time, and many other players still received contracts close to what they were worth as a player before they got caught.  I think the Tigers should show extreme interest in this power bat, especially if they can get a one-year deal or even a one-year deal with a player option for 2015.

Cruz would be able to play either corner outfield position (at a below average rate), designated hitter and possibly first base.  Cruz could get plenty of time in left field if he plays like he has in previous years; he can also help keep Hunter (RF), Cabrera (1B) and Martinez (DH) healthy.

I could see a possible lineup with Cruz looking like this:

1.  Ian Kinsler  2B

2.  Victor Martinez  DH

3.  Miguel Cabrera  1B

4.  Nelson Cruz  LF

5.  Torii Hunter  RF

6.  Alex Avila  C

7.  Austin Jackson  CF

8. Nick Castellanos  3B

9.  Jose Iglesias  SS

Obviously, there are a lot of options with this lineup as Hunter and Jackson could both he hitting higher in the order, but I like having Martinez in the two-hole.  He makes better contact than Hunter or Jackson and has a good eye at the plate, allowing the Tigers to do hit-and-runs and have Kinsler steal some bags.  Cruz can also move to other positions discussed to rest core players when needed.

Other options for the Tigers include Michael Young (more of a platoon player at this point, some power and a great team player but is considering retirement, per Ken Rosenthal) and Kendrys Morales (good power yet injury-prone, could come cheap once Cruz signs).

Their are free agent bullpen arms to be had, but the bigger issue for the Tigers is their lack of power.  The Tigers signed a couple arms (Chamberlain and Coke to be specific) to deals in which the pitcher has to prove something to get their next deal, and also have a more polished Bruce Rondon, who is looking to improve on his rocky rookie campaign.

I love the Tigers speed throughout the lineup and the bench, but for a team that had only 35 stolen bases (still unbelievable) in 2013, power still proved it can produce runs at a high rate, as the Tigers were second in the MLB behind the Red Sox in runs scored.

While I do agree with the salary-dumping of Fielder, the Tigers still need to replace his power as much as they can, and Cruz should remain a top option.