Nelson Cruz and the Seattle Mariners are the two leading actors of the most predictable romantic comedy of the era. We could tell from the beginning that they were probably going to end up together and despite a year or two of will-they-won't-they, the music played, the crowd cheered, and Cruz will join the Mariners for the next four seasons. There was a delicate courting, but we all knew it was coming.
If that feels like a stretched metaphor, consider this: Cruz and the Mariners are great representations of the leading couple because they're also not a great match, even though everyone thinks they're a great match. The Mariners want Cruz and Cruz wants them, but neither is really what the other party needs. This happens in rom-coms all the time, but the audience is supposed to ignore the fundamental flaws in the relationship because we've started rooting for them to beat the odds. That's basically what's happening here. The M's and Cruz feel like a fit, so when it happens, there's a sense of closure.
From a financial perspective, Cruz is probably going to make more money than he's worth. He's projected to be a 1.5 WAR player via Steamer and 2.0 WAR via ZiPS in 2015, and with basic aging expectation, 5 WAR seems like a generous four year projection. That's basically $11 million per win, which is way above the market price of about $7 million per win.
But that's not the only consideration to make. Yes, objectively, this is more money that you would want to pay to a player of Cruz's caliber for the next four seasons, but the Mariners don't have the luxury of spending this money more wisely on a player who fits this need, at least in free agency. They tried to sign Victor Martinez and he turned them down. They tried to sign Hanley Ramirez, it seems, and he turned them down to play in Boston. Billy Butler might have been a better option, but if the Mariners were after Ramirez primarily, they probably got caught unprepared to react to a fast developing Butler deal.
In other words, the Mariners needed a DH who could fill in at 1B and the outfield on occasion and Cruz was basically the best option they had left. Maybe he's not the only free agent option, but realistically Melky Cabrera was probably the only better free agent position player who fits on their roster. There's nowhere to put Chase Headley. Maybe you could make a case for Nori Aoki.
At any rate, Cruz is legitimately one of the better free agent position players left, and the Mariners were seeking a hitter. He's not the slugging star some make him out to be, but he is a useful player with home run power. It's hard to find players like that who want to play in Seattle, which explains why the Mariners targeted him. They would have preferred someone better, but that player doesn't really exist.
The Mariners paid a premium to get Cruz, just like they did to grab Cano last year. This leads to a couple of interesting considerations. Might the Mariners have a structural disadvantage when it comes to free agent hitters? It's possible that something about the park or the location deters free agents from wanting to play there, leading them to have to offer more money to get the same players. That's just a theory, but it could explain the weight of this deal.
The other consideration is that the Mariners don't have a lot of money tied up outside of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, and now Kyle Seager. If they wanted to, they could carry Cruz and still have room to add payroll elsewhere. That's an ownership call, but they have the flexibility. A couple million here or there shouldn't matter too much.
So yes, the Mariners could have accumulated more total value if they had spent this $57 million elsewhere, but it would also probably not lead them to signing a player like Cruz who could handle this DH role in Seattle. It's not a cost effective contract, but it doesn't have to be as long as they continue to fill holes and aren't held back by the salary going to Cruz. It's too early in the offseason to know if the Mariners are firing their only shot.
An inefficient 90 win team is better than an efficient 80 win team, so as long as a big contract doesn't prevent you from working toward that 90 win mark, it's not something to mock too heavily.
The interesting twist is that the Red Sox have lots of players who'd seemingly fit on the Mariners. Yoenis Cespedes, Mike Napoli, and even Allen Craig seem like good options for the Mariners, but they went ahead and signed Cruz before any of those guys came off the trade market. We won't know if the Mariners really screwed up on this until after we see the final prices on those pieces.
The long and short of this deal is that it makes the Mariners better for 2015. They appear to be a club that could benefit greatly from a few additional wins, meaning they wouldn't mind paying a little extra to grab them. So this deal is a problem only if they had $15 million to spend and decided to spend it all on Cruz. If it's Cruz plus some other stuff, it's a perfectly reasonable choice. There's a finite market for free agents, and if the trade partners are asking for the moon, a team on the brink is probably better off simply wasting some cash than wasting some talent. Granted, they did burn a draft pick here, so that needs to be factored in.
Cruz hits home runs and the Mariners like players who hit home runs. If the calculation was that simple, then this was probably silly. If, instead, the Mariners saw a barren market and said, "we need to add hitters and no one wants to make a reasonable trade," then this looks okay.
I wouldn't want to pay $45 for a hamburger, but if I'm starving and the only other places open in town are serving $60 burgers or $15 liver and onions, I'm buying the $45 burger. It's not an option I'm happy about, but it's the one I select. On December 1, it's too soon to say for sure exactly why this deal came together, but there's an explanation that works and one that doesn't. Cruz will probably have some okay years and the Mariners will pay a little too much for them. If the choice turns out to be Cruz, nothing, or a bigger waste somewhere else, this might turn out okay.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.