As we continue to preview the 2018 Seattle Mariners, the position unique to the junior league, the DH, will be occupied most often this season by Nelson Cruz. Cruz, arguably the best hitter on the team, has aged well, defying decline, and has proved to be a bargain, by today’s standards, on his four-year $58MM contract, signed back in 2015. While turning thirty-eight in July, Cruz hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, but how does he stack up against the other DHs in the league?
DH Projections – Where does Cruz Rank?
Dan Szymborski’s projection model, ZiPS, ranks Cruz fourth at DH, with two glaring errors on the ranking list. At the time the model was run, Carlos Santana had last played for the Cleveland Indians. He has since moved to the NL, signing with the Philadelphia Phillies. And, J.D. Martinez was not ranked, as he was expected to play the OF for a significant number of games, as he did with the Detroit Tigers. Martinez has since (finally) signed with the Boston Red Sox and will almost surely be their exclusive DH. But swapping out Santana for Martinez still leaves Cruz roughly the fourth best DH in baseball, behind also Miguel Sano of the Minnesota Twins and Edwin Encarnacion of the Cleveland Indians.
Of the four projection systems used on Fangraphs, ZiPS is the most conservative, expecting 2.0 WAR from Cruz, while Fans is the most bullish, predicting 3.4 WAR from the Boomstick. In his last four seasons, three with the Mariners and one with the Baltimore Orioles, Cruz has produced 3.7, 4.8, 4.2, and 3.8 fWAR, respectively. So, a lot depends on whether you believe Cruz can continue to defy Father Time or whether you believe time will catch up with him in 2018.
What to Expect from Cruz in 2018
The elder statesman of the elite DHs (Encarnacion just turned 35, Martinez is 30, and Sano is just a baby who can’t really play the outfield is age 24), Cruz is projected to play between 132 and 156 games at DH. He may relieve Mitch Haniger in right every once in a while, and it has been reported that Cruz is working a little at 1B. Also, Cruz has played in no fewer than 152 games since the 2013 season with the Texas Rangers when he was suspended 50 games for PED use. Durability should not be a problem for Cruz in 2018.
All four projection systems concede the power of the boomstick and expect at least 30 HR for the fifth straight season. The bullish Fans projection has Cruz hitting .283/.363/.521 with 36 HR, 115 RBI, a wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) of 136 and a 3.4 WAR. The most skeptical projection, that of the aforementioned ZiPS, has Cruz hitting .259/.338/.485 with 31 HR, 119 wRC+, and 2.0 WAR. Fans is clearly expecting a continued gradual decline, but otherwise elite hitting, while ZiPS appears to be expecting a steeper drop off at age 38, but with continued above average production.
Fans, that ranks players by WAR projections, has Cruz as the number one DH, as does Steamer that ranks players by the hitting component of WAR (Cruz isn’t great on the base paths). Depth Charts that ranks based on wOBA (weighted on base average) has Cruz third behind Encarnacion and Martinez. And finally, ZiPS, which also sorts by wOBA has Cruz as the fourth best DH.
Even if the reality is something like the average of the projections systems, the Mariners have one of the best DHs in all of baseball.
DH Grade A
Nelson Cruz is clearly in the upper third of DHs in the league. The only concern the Mariners might have there day-to-day, barring an injury of course, is time catching up to Cruz like many (including this writer) thought would happen a few years ago. The grade of A, as opposed to A plus, is simply a hedge on the possibility of decline by age.