Friday, June 27, 2014

Cruz Crushing

Cruz has been one of 2014's biggest first half surprises (
When the Baltimore Orioles signed Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal during spring training, nobody expected him to emerge as the team's best player. Not on a roster loaded with younger, in-their-prime standouts such as Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Manny Machado. Cruz appeared to be a player in decline, and there were serious doubts about what he'd be able to give the Orioles. He was, after all, about to turn 34, coming off a 50-game ban for PED use, and leaving a hitter's paradise in Arlington behind. Why do you think so many teams passed on him?

Well, Cruz quickly erased those doubts by homering in the first two games of the season and hasn't stopped hitting since. He slumped briefly at the beginning of June, but seems to have turned it around with three home runs and nine RBI in his past ten games, including a game-tying grand slam on Wednesday night that sparked the Orioles to an extra-inning victory.

Cruz now leads the major leagues in home runs (with 24) and RBI (64), on pace for 49 and 131, respectively. Even if he falls well short of those totals, he'll still blow his career highs (33 and 90) out of the water. He might as well go ahead and take the rest of the year off, because he's already earned his pay and then some. He's already been hailed as the best bargain of the offseason, and rightly so.

It's tempting to say Cruz can't and won't keep this up, that he'll cool off in the second half like so many sluggers with big first halves tend to do. But it's important to remember that he was hitting well last year before baseball suspended him for the rest of the season. Dating back to the start of last year, a span of 185 game for Cruz (essentially seven months of baseball), he's swatted 51 home runs, driven in 140 and slugged .541. That's a fairly large sample size, and Cruz was successful before that, too.

Could Cruz be juicing again? Given his history, it's not out of the question. It's rare to see players have career years at 33/34, but Cruz was a late-bloomer to begin with. He didn't play his first full season until he was 28, so experience-wise he's where most players are at in their late twenties. That, and the fact that he doesn't have nearly as much mileage as most outfielders in their mid-thirties, could explain why it's clicking for Cruz (and a few more fly balls flying over the fence never hurts, either).

Even if he does tail off in the second half, his pre-All-Star Break performance has been strong enough to merit a considerable pay raise when he becomes a free agent again this winter. He's a good bet to break 40 homers and 100 RBI for the first time, numbers that few in the game today are capable of reaching. That kind of big-time power deserves a big-time contract, and this time around I'm sure someone will give it to him.

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