The Baltimore Orioles have been active late in free agency. Last week they agreed to a four-year deal with starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. This week, they signed outfielder Nelson Cruz to a one-year deal valued at $8 million.
Cruz’s name was mentioned at the beginning of the offseason as a possible option for the Phillies. They were in need of a right fielder, preferably one who was right handed and could hit for power. The Phillies opted instead to sign Marlon Byrd to a two-year $16 million deal that includes a third-year vesting option.
Assuming that they could have signed him to the same deal as the Orioles did, would the Phillies have been better off waiting for Cruz? Wouldn’t they have been better off giving a shorter deal to a younger and seemingly better player?
On the surface, Cruz looked like an ideal fit. He is a two-time All-Star with five straight seasons of over 20 home runs. The problem is that despite those strong offensive numbers, it’s difficult to know exactly what to expect from Cruz in the coming years. It isn’t clear how much Cruz owes his success to the use of PEDs as he was suspended 50 games last season due to connection with Biogenesis. (Of course Byrd is no stranger to PEDs either.)
Assuming that Cruz’s numbers were legitimate and not a result of chemical enhancement, there are still some reasons why Byrd is the better option.
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro claims that one of the reasons that he pursued Byrd was due to his defense. Byrd used to be a center fielder, and while he isn’t thought to be an every day option there anymore, he is still regarded as a plus option in the corner spots. On the other hand, Cruz is considered to be a poor fielder. Many people expected him to sign in the American League simply because he’d be able to spend part of his time at designated hitter. He certainly wouldn’t be able to fill in at center field like Byrd can.
Perhaps more importantly, Byrd did not require the Phillies to sacrifice a draft pick. Cruz’s 2013 team – the Texas Rangers – offered him a qualifying offer, meaning that any team that signed him would need to give the Rangers a draft pick in compensation. Since the Phillies’ pick will be in the top ten, they would only have to give up a second round pick as opposed to a first, but that is still more than they should be comfortable with.
Despite some surface evidence to the contrary, the Phillies are in the midst of a rebuilding phase, and it is crucial that they acquire and retain as many young players as they possibly can. Giving up a pick for a free agent might have been acceptable if that player was a clear and obvious upgrade. Would one year of Nelson Cruz really have been worth the sacrifice?
It’s possible that Cruz puts the Biogenesis mess behind him and has a good year. It’s also possible that Byrd regresses back to his 2012 form and looks like a huge mistake. But considering Amaro’s top priority needs to be not sacrificing future assets for minimal short-term gains, I think that going for Byrd instead of Cruz was the smart move.
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