Nelson Cruz has reportedly rejected the one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer the Rangers recently tendered to him, making him free to negotiate with all 30 major league teams, which includes a possible — albeit unlikely — return to the Rangers.
Cruz, 33, will surely be able to command more than $14.1 million on the open market, but what’s more important than the financial commitment is the amount of years he wants. Realistically, he won’t net a contract that pays him $14.1 million on an annual basis, but he should get a 3-year deal, or two years plus an option for 2016, at something in the $10-$11 million average annual value range. This protects him from having a completely shitty 2014 season, thus driving his market down significantly in 2015 and 2016. This is, obviously, the deft strategy to take from a player’s perspective, as his rejecting of the qualifying offer has been expected since the season ended.
The Rangers, meanwhile, tendered the qualifying offer for their own protection. If Nelson Cruz returns to Texas — which I don’t expect — it will be below the $10-$11 million market I posited above. If, however, Nellie signs elsewhere, the Rangers will receive a first round pick from that team as compensation.
So, to keep it short, both the player and the franchise made the smart play.
Nelson Cruz is coming off a .266/.327/.507 (122 wRC+) season where he hit 27 HRs and drove in 76 runs in only 456 plate appearances, 109 games. He was infamously part of the Biogenesis scandal that cost him 50 games down the stretch, 50 games that may or may not have cost the Rangers a berth in the postseason.
Conflated with the fact that he is about to enter into his age-34 season, where production historically begins to drop off — particularly for power hitters such as himself — Cruz figures to be on the free agent market for quite a long time. See, if teams were merely signing the slugger for, let’s say, a 3-year, $33 million contract, there wouldn’t be much of an issue. That would be an overpayment for an aging slugger, sure, but $33 million isn’t in itself enough to cripple even a small-market franchise.
What it’s really costing the team who signs him — assuming it’s not the Rangers — is the first round draft pick. The collective bargaining agreement penalizes the fuck out of small- and mid-market teams who can’t just spend money to fill all their holes. It places a premium on drafting and developing talent, the talent that will be paid the league minimum when it reaches the majors.
Last year, teams were ultra-hesitant to sign Michael Bourn (who eventually signed with the Indians for 4 years and $52 million) and Kyle Lohse (who signed with the Brewers for 3 years and $36 million) for this exact reason. Going into last offseason, Bourn was expected to garner something close to $100 million, and Lohse was looking for around $75 million, but teams showed trepidation to commit to them at their advanced, declining ages, as well as the forfeiture of a draft pick. They were each inevitably signed to huge bargains to compensate for what was truly valuable: The 1st round pick.
So, yeah. Nelson Cruz may have another solid year left in his bat. He may shock me and produce strong power numbers through 2015; I don’t know. But my best guess is that he will be the last of the nominal free agents to come off the board, and it will probably be at a price much less than what he wants right now.