BY Art Thiel 05:40PM 02/11/2014

Thiel: Spring nears, as does Seattle need for bat

Mariners need to support the hire of Robinson Cano with more than they have now. Since they are loaded with TV money, give some to Nelson Cruz.

The best guy left to protect Robinson Cano in the Mariners lineup is Nelson Cruz. / Wiki Commons

Somewhere between the Seahawks afterglow and the delightful new Winter Olympics competitions of Find The Elevator Car and Bathroom-Door Breakdowns, the Mariners season arises tenuously as daffodil leaves, looking for the warmth of attention. It is a struggle, but the Mariners have again committed to another 162 games. So we shall look.

Two things are apparent:

  • For a team entering its 38th year, it’s remarkable how expansion-like the lineup seems. Five positions are settled: The first two spots in the starting rotation,  second base and third base, and the closer. Six, if you count the position of Token Local Retread Guy, Willie Bloomquist, reprising the role of Raul Ibanez and Ken Griffey Jr. Next: Norm Charlton.
  • High salaries are no longer an impediment to success. That is the only conclusion available after the Mariners outbid the Yankees by $65 million for the services of second baseman Robinson Cano. The $240 million commitment is possible because of the purchase of majority interest in the regional sports network, Root. The Mariners will never publicly disclose the value of the deal, so we will infer from Cano contract a value: It is enough to run their shop as the big boys run their shops.

That brings us to this week’s start of spring training and the most immediate question: Why hasn’t free agent slugger Nelson Cruz signed with the Mariners?

It can’t be money: See above. And if it’s length of contract, that is mostly out the window too, since they gave Cano a 10-year deal at 31, and declining closer Fernando Rodney a two-year deal at 37. If that is the template, giving Cruz, 33, five years is not unreasonable.

This is exactly the opposite kind of team-building that Seattle just experienced with the Seahawks, who became the youngest team in history to win the Super Bowl. But this is baseball, and they are the Mariners, so being contrary is mandatory.

For weeks, the Mariners have been in pursuit of Cruz. who last season had a .266/.327/.506 line, including 23 home runs and 76 RBIs in 109 games in his eighth season with Texas. Even GM Jack (Eric who?) Zduriencik has acknowledged interest by name.

It may be Cruz who is holding up matters by creating a market with other interested parties, said to be the Orioles and Pirates. That would be reasonable. Desperate teams are multiple at this time of year. He is said to be seeking around $14 million for each of two years, which is a considerable drop from his original asking price.

I presume the stall isn’t because of some late misgivings by the Mariners about PED use that caused Cruz to miss, via MLB suspension, the final 50 games of last season.

Cruz was one of 14 players caught in the Biogenesis scandal. Unlike Alex Rodriguez, Cruz owned up and admitted use, claiming a lapse in judgment over an intense desire to get back on the field quickly while battling an illness. I no more believe that excuse than I believe Zduriencik is all about hip-hop, as he said after the Cano signing. But it doesn’t much matter.

Cruz was busted, and served the punishment that was collectively bargained. Some fans are anguished that PED users are rewarded post-punishment with large contracts, but that is neither the fault of the player nor the team, because baseball rules call for no period of purgatory.

MLB’s conduct in the Biogenesis investigation of Rodriguez was so inexcusable that it renders inert any substantive caring about baseball’s policies regarding PEDs. I mean, if MLB is nearly out-sliming Rodriguez, any hope of decency and respect is lost.

In any event, Cruz, despite the PED history and his shortcomings, particularly in the outfield (imagine a blindfolded Ibanez), is worth the risk. Above all else, the Mariners need a hitter to protect Cano in the lineup, and Cruz, a right-handed hitter in a lineup of many lefties, is the last guy left in the marketplace who has a decent shot to do that.

The Mariners have also hired Logan Morrison and Corey Hart, two once-good hitters coming from the same remnant bin from which Seattle a year ago plucked Mike Morse and Jason Bay — broken-down vets on the back end.

The one decent hitter they had was Kendrys Morales, who is still a free agent, shocked at the absence of a market for him. Even Ibanez at 42 found a job with the Angels.

Cruz essentially is a slight upgrade from Morales (.277/.336/.449 with 23 home runs in 156 games) but is three years older. Yet without Cruz, the Mariners are going to have about the same offense as a year ago, because Cano will be intentionally walked 500 times.

The Mariners had an American League-worst .237 batting average and, despite finishing second in homers, scored just 14 more runs than the Houston Astros, the worst sports team since the first Jamaican bobsledders.

Zduriencik thought the Mariners were closer to success than the 71-91 record indicated, primarily because the pitching staff blew 23 saves that, in part, accounted for a ghastly 13 walk-off losses. While that’s true, and Rodney is a partial fix, it is also true that if the offense actually gets a substantive lead occasionally, the bullpen isn’t subjected to the daily firing squad.

After spending so absurdly — but affordably — for Cano, the mandatory minimum requirement was to support the investment with upgraded bats around him.  Without Cruz, Morales and Ibanez, the Mariners’ best season-long offensive strategy is likely the leadoff walk by Cano.

Sort of like watching the Broncos offense, only from the Denver side.


  • Jeff

    I dunno if Cruz is a slight upgrade over Kendrys as a bat. I’m guessing at Safeco, Kendrys will hit for a higher average and more homers than Cruz will. Both Cruz and Hart in the outfield at once hopefully is a rarity.

  • jafabian

    I’d rather have Kendrys than Cruz. He could also play 1st and it’s important in the AL to have a stable DH position. You can’t rotate it. If Cruz hasn’t signed by now then Jack needs to move on. Obviously he isn’t committed to what the M’s are trying to do and the club doesn’t need that kind of attitude.

    • Tian Biao

      I agree 100%. Morales is younger, proven, and plays better defense. Also, older guys who no longer take their PEDs seem to fall off a cliff pretty fast. but we can always count on the Ms to do the wrong thing. For example, I had a look at Fernando Rodney’s numbers over the last two years – the dropoff in 2013 was scary. here we go again . . .

      • jafabian

        Rodney seems to have a good year then a bad year. Last year was his bad year but if he was a Mariner he would have been our best reliever. Hopefully this year he’ll bounce back and Safeco Field is more conducive to pitching than Tropicana Field.

        Considering how Justin Smoak hasn’t met expectations you’d think the M’s would want some sort of insurance behind him. Morales is just that. I don’t get playing the waiting game with Cruz. Jack’s just playing into his hands doing that. No wonder Jay Z got a big contract for Cano.

  • Skymaster T

    Once again, this season’s potential for disaster is huge. With the impending signing of Cruz, we are relying on either old brittle vets or young, unproven players. Literally the only guy in the lineup we can count on is Cano. The rest we just hope work out. And the rotation isn’t much better. We have Felix and Kuma, then just pray it works out. It’s like playing baseball roulette with this team. Can Schneider and Carroll maybe come and work as consultants?

  • Skymaster T

    Ok, maybe we can count on Seager as well. He’s solid.

  • tedsfrozenhead

    If the qualifing offer to Morales is not binding I would go with him over Smoakie. JS has had enough time to show us what he’s got and he has come up short. Morales can man 1st fine enough, is a proven commodity at Safeco and has none of the PED residue and questions Cruz brings

  • Al Wasser

    Why haven’t the Mariners signed Cruz? Maybe they’ve come to their senses. Away from Texas, he’s mediocre (.242 batting average, .299 on-base percentage, .435 slugging percentage).

  • dinglenuts

    “Spring nears, as does Seattle’s need for a bat”… and the inevitable disappointment of another woeful, mismanaged Mariner campaign.

    How does an organization that should have been stockpiling high draft picks for the last, oh, 10 years, manage to field such a substandard collection of odds and ends masquerading as a major league squad?

    Cano will set a Mariner record for intentional walks, and by June will be wondering how soon he can worm his way out of a 10-year deal. The Mariner outfield will turn routine fly balls into hits, singles into doubles and triples. The bullpen will be arrested for arson before the All-Star break.

    Yes, hope springs eternal.

  • notaboomer

    trust jesus (montero)

  • Hammtime

    I’m still on such a high from the Hawks I don’t want the Mariners to spoil it.
    Can we just skip baseball season? How about if we pay the M’s not to play? After all, we’re technically paying Howard Lincoln to NOT field a good team why not take it a bit further?

  • 1coolguy

    Ugh, another M’s season.
    Doesn’t it get difficult Art, after say May of each year, to write about the M’s, since their season is always over by June?

  • Will

    Sweating any details relating to the Mariners is akin to the goofy old question, “How many angels can sit on the head of a pin?”

    A better use of sping, summer and early fall will be to do yard work, paint the house, visit the in-laws … and then get ready for Husky football and the next big thing from the Seahawks.